Difficult people in the workplace: them or us?

When we tell ourselves someone is difficult, it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Jenny Bird and Sarah Gornall suggest taking a different approach

You enter a long corridor at work: as you do, someone ‘difficult’ enters at the other end. You walk towards each other knowing you are about to pass close together. What’s going on for you? You wonder how to get past with minimal interaction, how not to engage. Your muscles tense, you have a fixed, unreal smile on your lips; not in your eyes.

Who does the other person see coming towards them? Someone ready for conflict or avoidance: someone closed; someone unwelcoming. They respond in an instinctive fight or flight state. And then you see someone difficult. Confirmation bias at its best… or worst.

Social species

Very few people set out to be difficult or not to get along with others. We’re a social species and historically have needed other people for survival. We may all sometimes be defensive, ready to fight our corner, looking for advantage. But if we are, it is rarely at root personal to an individual because those antagonistic behavioural patterns are more about ourselves and our own vulnerabilities than about the other person. They are more about me than you.

Our thoughts and beliefs, the stories we tell ourselves, underlie and influence our behaviour. We can explore and alter these stories and so in turn alter our behaviour, if we choose to. This is good news, because we are less able to alter other people’s behaviour, even though we would dearly like to do so at times. I am the person over whom I have most control.   

Offended aunt

Take Tunde. She finds her line manager grumpy and rude. She tells that story (grumpy and rude) to herself and sometimes to others. She notices all his behaviours which fit that model. She feels cross and judgemental. Then a comment from a colleague makes her pause and consider. She notices that she is behaving like an offended aunt who hasn’t received a proper ‘thank you’ for a present. She suddenly sees herself like a ruffled clucking hen and realises that this is not the person (or animal) that she would really like to be. So, she chooses to give him (and her internal image of him) less mental energy. She takes a very easy approach: talk about the work, it’s not personal. Suddenly she finds it easier to work with him, easier to get on with the work, easier to enjoy what she achieves.  

We have a model for exploring what is happening in interactions like this. It’s the ‘Who/How Cone’ described in our 2019 book, How to Work with People… and Enjoy It! The starting point, and apex of the cone, is us and who we are. Then the cone widens to include how we think about ourselves and next, how we show up in the world.

Tunde did her aunt thing, at first unconsciously. Then she noticed how she was showing up. The boss would have seen the aunt effect and reacted. This interaction, how I present to you and how you respond to my perceived behaviour, is the next part of the developing cone. The final part is the outcome of our joint experience of each other. If the boss resented the aunt act the outcome of their work together was likely to be poor, stilted, unnatural and non-creative. Would any of us want that?

The stages of the Who/How Cone are:

  1. Me, myself
  2. How I think about myself
  3. How I show up in the world
  4. How other people perceive me
  5. How I use feedback from others to alter my perception of how I show up and our joint experience of each other

We can pause in our daily interactions and scan:

  • What’s my thinking and feeling here?
  • How may I be presenting as a result of that?
  • What will others be seeing?
  • What impressions will they take away?
  • What different choices can I make to change my interpretations, their interpretations and shared outcomes?

Here’s a four-step plan for when you’re telling yourself someone is difficult:

  1. Stop that story
  2. What else is true?
  3. What are my choices?
  4. What will I do?

Preventing self-fulfilling prophesies

When we tell ourselves someone is difficult that uses a lot of our mental energy and becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. So, when Tunde tells herself the boss is rude because he doesn’t greet her in the mornings, doesn’t ask about her and doesn’t praise her work, she’ll find lots of proof of that. Instead, if she tells herself that he doesn’t say much because he is concentrating and is satisfied with her work so has nothing to say about it, her interpretation of his behaviour can change and she can relax. She may then appear more open to comment and she’ll certainly give his silence less mental energy.

If she chooses to explore her own needs, she’ll also notice that she benefits from some constructive comment on her work (often known as praise) and she may consider where else she can get that. Perhaps a colleague will agree to reciprocal work checking.

Asking for changes

If, after taking an alternative view like this and allowing ourselves to choose different thinking patterns, we still rationally find some behaviours difficult to work with, we can choose assertively to ask for changes. People rarely change who they fundamentally are, yet we can all change our behaviours. To ask for changes in other people’s behaviour, you can try following this approach:

  1. When you…  insert specific behaviour
  2. I feel… own it: it’s your interpretation
  3. So, in future please would you…  insert specific behavioural change

For example:

‘When you leave the office without saying anything, I feel unsure what to prioritise and what to say to anyone who calls. So, in future, please would you let me know when you are leaving and what to share with others?’

The starting point is our self-knowledge and self-respect. Ideally, we can find ways to understand ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin: to be clear about how we may appear to others, and to make choices about our interpretation of the behaviour of colleagues and about how we present ourselves to them.

We are each in control of our own thinking and the stories we tell ourselves: we can all choose our behaviours. And that is powerful news!

Jenny Bird and Sarah Gornall are the authors of How to Work with People… and Enjoy It! (Routledge 2019).

What’s love got to do with it? The motivating power of passion in business

If managers want to retain and motivate, they should appeal to employees’ passion and desire..but how? RSM’s Stefano Tasselli turns to the ancient Greeks for inspiration and suggests that we start by furthering our understanding of the importance of love

Outside the business world, we have heard about the power and virtue of love for centuries. However, love is not all rainbows and butterflies. The expression of love at work can often be tough and challenging but if we want to give our employees a sense of purpose, it is vital.

Expressed as trust, compassion, friendship, and creativity, love shapes our working environment to such an extent that we could say love is the organisation and vice versa. However, for today’s data-driven systems, love is impossible to quantify or manage. My research has found that many organisations fail to recognise that they are made up entirely of people. And the truth is, people are motivated by love.

Why we ignore love

Love gets expressed at multiple levels of the business system. Sometimes we have heard about it being expressed towards a colleague, sometimes within teams, sometimes within a whole company through HR practices, and sometimes outside the organisation, through relationships with suppliers, customers and other stakeholders.

Yet love has largely been avoided in the study of organisations. We can still find its traces in studies of related concepts, however they often avoid the word ‘love’. These studies may focus on workplace creativity, or ego and the working environment. They might study friendship and trust, they might study altruism, or any other number of personal motivators. In short, love has not received the attention it deserves.

Fundamentally, there is conflict between organisational design and the many ways love is felt and expressed. Studies of organisations and management have been dominated by an emphasis on efficiency, rationality, and measurable performance. These ideas contradict the idea of love, which is about passion and desire, and which is personal and subjective. 

Organisational life tends to choose authority over passion, and consistency over self-realisation. Because love demands exceptions and singularity over reproducible consistency, it presents an innate challenge to the tools we use to study and manage organisations.

Ironically, modern organisations are intrinsically dynamic and evolving, just like love is, but our managerial styles and the reward systems within these organisations are more reflective of assembly line management. Organisations are obsessed with measurable performance and efficiency. But if managers want to retain and motivate their staff, they should appeal to their employees’ passion and desire, which is impossible to quantify.

Love’s three faces

Creating a framework for studying love within organisations begins with understanding the three concepts of eros (me), philia (we), and agape (us all). 

1. Eros

The ancient Greeks seemed to have a strong understanding of the power of love, with separate words to denote its different forms . ‘Eros’ is sexual or passionate love, and is the type most akin to our modern construct of romantic love. Although, in the age of #metoo, it is perhaps not too appropriate for organisations to focus on this type.

2. Philia

 ‘Philia’, on the other hand, should be incorporated in all organisations. This is the love for our friends and something that is based on mutual respect and built on trust. We know that employees are more productive when they have positive relationships with their co-workers. New employees’ might experience philia when they feel welcomed into an organisation, and the resulting emotional bonds promote loyalty and are nearly as important as the work itself.

3. Agape

Agape’ is the broadest love of all, and equates to compassion for all humankind. Agape love is unconditional, sacrificial, and pure. Agape in organisations is perhaps best expressed through compassionate leadership, for example when the UK’s Queen Mother visited Londoners during WWII bombing, or like former US President George W Bush shaving off his hair as a sign of empathy for an employee’s young son who had cancer.

Compassionate leaders are not afraid to show concern and emotion towards their followers. In practice, this helps avoid common workplace problems that we prefer to pretend don’t exist, such as performance review bias, when a person is judged on who they are rather than what they do.

Non-profit organisations are an obvious example of agape in practice, especially when the organisation is staffed by volunteers.

Employee motivation

Love is also vital for employee motivation, for example, unconditional compassion may encourage a firefighter to work not for money, but to help a community they really care about. A manager who understands this motivation is at a distinct advantage compared with one who simply offers yet another raise.

But there is also a dark side to passion. Self-sacrifice may contribute to overworking and strong friendships at work may lead to cliques and favouritism. However only with a stronger understanding of love can we identify these kinds of problems before they start.

Understanding the importance of love will uncover new opportunities and help us understand our organisations, our teams and ourselves. This not only helps understand the ‘why’ behind work, but also improves employee retention and engagement in today’s changing nature of work.

My strongest message to you, as a reader, is that love is neither alien nor misplaced in your organisations. If you consider love to be a worthwhile pursuit in any aspect of your life then you have the opportunity to express love throughout your life, including at work. As a leader, you should commit to expressing love at work. In doing so, you can make a huge difference to the lives of your employees.

Stefano Tasselli is an Associate Professor at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

Teaching MBAs to learn from failure

Business Schools can break down taboos around failure and help MBAs cope with and learn from it within a psychologically safe environment. Kevin Lee-Simion talks to three Business School leaders about how they address ‘failure’ as a key topic within MBA programme design

We strive for success, but could it be argued that we must experience failure in order to achieve it? Dr Ivo Matser discusses the topic of failure within Business Schools and for MBA students.

Is failure a necessity?

Yes, but not because people want to fail or people should fail. Failure is not a goal, failure is inevitable. Of utmost importance is the acceptance of failure as a probable outcome of an experiment, innovation or attempt of improvement. Without experimenting, innovation becomes improbable. Accepting failure and not being frightened to fail are of equal importance.

The problem is that we do not share failures and mostly hear about success stories. But ‘behind’ successes are failures. Many success stories are written in hindsight and are not the actual stories. These success stories imply that people understand the market and that decision makers are invariably able to develop reliable forecasts which is impossible in reality. 

Failure does not form the curriculum in higher education

Many people believe in forecasts but they fail to recognise them as projections of a desired future. Not meeting these projections is failing and this is perceived as stupid. Schools want to teach smart things and not stupidity. Moreover, the education system is based on the punishment of failures. 

As children, we are encouraged to experiment. Yet as soon as we go to school we are graded and punished for failures. This does not mean that we should not assess people. Assessment could be more geared towards learning processes and on what people can do. Additionally, it should motivate people to take responsibility for applying their talents properly. Feeling responsible for developing your talents means continuous improvement and not being afraid of challenges. 

Business Schools must create an environment in which MBAs can thrive through failure

There are many ways to integrate failures into programmes. Feeling safe with your peers is a condition to share and use failures. 

It is imperative that MBA students bring their own failures into the classroom and that we can invite successful people to share their dark sides of success. Practising behaviour is important. We can teach how to lead a meeting but it is better to organise simulations where students can practice and learn from their failures and mistakes.

Teaching about failure

You cannot teach how to behave as we need experiential learning – learning by doing and receiving feedback. Failures are important in MBA programmes, however, most programmes do not teach it, but let students experience failures. Feedback is an important learning intervention in behaviour, often more powerful than teaching. I personally train people in giving and receiving feedback.

How to handle failure

An MBA student can handle failure if the MBA is able to create a learning context. If you work in an environment where ‘management by fear’ is the business culture, it is quite naïve to start your own kind of safe environment to share and support experimenting. What I do not see in many MBA programmes is the topic ‘how to manage upwards/boards/shareholders’. Most MBA programmes only focus on managing downwards and horizontally. It is important to learn how to manage superiors or systems to create a learning environment with a supportive feedback system.

Strategies to learn from failure

This is experiential learning but with a twist as it’s based on talents and the potential of people. Successes and failures in your personal development journey work, because this is based on your talents.

Strategies that emphasise failure

If people are not allowed to fail, this does not prevent them from failing. They will simply become very smart at hiding failures or just do the minimum demanded to reduce the probability of failure. 

This means that you are likely to spot failures late in the day, also leading to low productivity and slow decision-making processes. By contrast, openness, transparency, feedback and cultivating a ‘safe environment’ help avoid significant losses, because we notice failures earlier. This results in greater innovation, higher productivity and less sick leave. 

Dr Ivo Matser is President of GISMA Business School

Marco Tortoriello discusses success and failure in business, and the role Business Schools have to play in breaking the failure taboo.

Why is failure a subject that is not really touched upon in higher education?

This has to do with the general image that business leaders like to have of themselves; no one likes to see themselves as a failure. We tend to look at other people’s failings and say things such as ‘of course they failed, they didn’t take this into consideration’. The vast majority of business ideas fail. These ideas don’t necessarily fail because they are bad ideas but because people have a poor understanding of what it takes to implement the ideas.

Business Schools should do more to teach students about failure

Business Schools should collectively teach students more about failure. There should be conversations about failure and it should not be viewed as a taboo topic.

Business Schools need to teach students to acknowledge failure and help them consider failure as part of the learning process.

Case discussions about failure are the most natural way of recreating a scenario in which a decision was made that led to failure. Through these discussions, students can talk about things such as whether there was consistency in the decision made even though it ended up in failure. In my MBA classes, I always incorporate cases studies about failure and keep a balance between the ‘winning’ business moves and the business moves that didn’t go so well. I tell my students that the people who made these ‘bad’ decisions were judged as ‘stupid’. However, in these case studies, the people who failed were the best and brightest in that industry.

When we recognise failure, we should be humble. Dismissing a failure as an ‘obvious’ mistake does not help students to understand the situation that led to the wrong set of decisions. If a mistake were ‘obvious’, they wouldn’t have made that mistake.

We can avoid mistakes by learning from the experiences of others. From that perspective, case studies are useful for examining the failure and success of business moves.

Business leaders can be afraid to fail, and afraid to innovate. Business Schools have an opportunity to change this mindset 

Business Schools need to talk openly about failure and help students consider it as ‘part of the picture’. Failure is a discrete event. But to get to this discrete outcome, there is a sequence of decisions. Business Schools should help students dissect the process to analyse what went wrong in the sequence of decisions that eventually resulted in failure. A critical appraisal will enable students to learn from instances of failure.

People get emotionally involved in projects. When one fails, they don’t want to talk about why it didn’t work. But the point is to think about the next move. This move can be just as important and as relevant for you in your personal growth and career as the previous one that failed.

The best strategies an MBA can use to learn from failure

MBAs can put themselves in the shoes of decision makers. However, this is very hard because we have the benefit of hindsight. So MBAs need to be able to ‘reset the clock’ and only use the information that was available at the time.

MBAs could think of failure as a cadaver, with themselves as the medical examiner. Physicians conduct autopsies to understand what happened when someone has died. They are not emotional and are objective. MBAs need to do the same when regarding failure.

Marco Tortoriello is Professor of Strategy and Organisations at Università Bocconi and Associate Dean Master Division at SDA Bocconi.

Failure is part of life but it isn’t addressed sufficiently. Deniz Ucbasaran talks about failure, its concepts and the teaching methods surrounding it.

Most things we teach are geared towards success. We want to attract the best students; those who have succeeded. We carefully pour through their CVs to identify their academic achievements, we scrutinise their prior work experience to see what they have accomplished.

When they arrive, we teach them about success using examples of successful companies and leaders.

This is understandable. After all, nobody wants to pay for an MBA to learn about failures, right? There are a whole host of reasons why such an attitude can be problematic. 

Blameworthy failures

If we’re not careful, we may be committing a scientific sin – ‘sampling on the dependent variable’. If we only look at the practices of successful companies or individuals and conclude that it is their practices that led to success, our conclusions can be misleading. It’s only when we analyse the practices of those that failed as well as those that succeeded, that we can attribute a particular practice to success with greater accuracy. 

Failure and setbacks are part of life. While failing is not a new phenomenon, our ability to predict accurately what will happen next is diminishing as we operate in an increasingly turbulent and uncertain world. With this uncertainty, comes surprises, setbacks and failures. We therefore need to acknowledge these, understand them and learn how to deal with them in such a way that our failures might fuel future successes.

All failures are not created equal. Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, suggests that failures fall within a spectrum. On the one extreme are blameworthy failures such as those that result from people deviating from rules or making insufficient effort. Some failures may result from lack of knowledge or experience or due to overload. In the latter cases of failure, the blame may lie with superiors for misjudging competence and stress levels.  

At the other extreme are ‘intelligent’ failures which are the result of carefully crafted experiments designed to generate learning about what works and what doesn’t. These intelligent failures are low in cost but high in learning. 

For example, you may have an idea for a novel product. Rather than going full steam ahead you might develop a low-cost prototype and start by getting potential customers to use it and provide feedback. You recognise that they don’t want the product you had in mind but learn that they would love it if it were available in a particular style or if it had a particular function. Although finding out that potential customers don’t want your product in its current form might seem like a failure, you haven’t invested a huge amount to find out some information that now provides you with new options. These kinds of failures are part of the various processes that we teach our students. But while they make intuitive sense, these ideas are often harder to put into practice.

Minimising the cost of failure

Many failures are not carefully planned and designed. They can come as a shock and are often hard to cope with. Therefore, although a failure represents a jolt that encourages us to reflect, learning from failure is not automatic. For starters, minimising the costs of failure can be hard. If left unchecked, many of us are prone to the bias known as ‘escalation of commitment’ where we might invest more and more in the hope of turning things round when they look like they may be failing. Also, failure can be an emotional experience associated with feelings of guilt, shame, anger, fear, blame and these feelings may be heightened in certain contexts and cultures. After all, not everybody lives in the entrepreneur-friendly, failure-tolerant Silicon Valley. The emotions associated with failure might lead to defensive strategies such as blaming others or attributing the failure to external factors beyond one’s control. Such emotional responses may limit the lessons learned from the failure. 

It was partly for this reason that one entrepreneurship professor took issue with the way learning from failure was being presented – suggesting that the process was more complex than it appeared. Drawing on his own experience of dealing with his father who had to close the family business, Dean Shepherd, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Notre Dame University, explained how the failure of an entrepreneur’s business could be likened to the loss of a loved one, generating a response similar to grief. Such feelings might lead to numerous coping strategies, not all conducive to learning from failure.

An appropriate emotional response

Even with less significant failures, emotions are still likely to be involved. So, what can we do to make sure there is an appropriate emotional response? And how can we prepare the next generation of managers and leaders for dealing with failures?

One important first step is to ‘normalise’ discussions around failure. Through discussions about failure we can create safe environments in which failure can be discussed. 

Any discussion of failure should seek to enhance understanding of how people think and feel about failure. By inducing uncertainty and failures in a relatively safe environment we can help our students get to know what it feels like to fail and understand their default responses. Our default responses to failure are often underpinned by our mindset. 

According to Carol Dweck, author of the bestseller Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, for those with a fixed mindset, a failure or setback is self-defining: ‘If I fail at something, that makes me a failure.’ Accordingly, situations where failure might occur are frequently avoided by those with a fixed mindset. In contrast, for those with a growth mindset, even though the failure is still a painful experience, it is something to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.  

Pedagogic approaches that simulate uncertainty and failure may help students understand their default responses and when coupled with having these responses questioned, may allow them to develop new neural pathways for dealing with failure. Role plays may be a powerful method for helping students understand failure better. How, for example, might you persuade a colleague to join a high-risk project? 

Along similar lines, Professor Shepherd suggests students might be asked to role play being a boss having to give a speech, announcing the closure of the business to employees or having to provide advice to an entrepreneur who appears to be coping badly with a failed business. Professor Shepherd suggests that those who have failed should oscillate between a restoration-orientation, whereby they move on and focus on new or different activities, and loss-orientation, whereby they focus on what they have lost and try to make sense of this loss. 

Too much of the latter can lead to rumination and negative emotions, which might get in the way of the individual moving on and functioning normally but too much of the former may mean there is minimal reflection on the failure and therefore limited understanding of what happened. To make the most of a failure, individuals will need to reflect on the failure but also bounce back and apply the learning in the form of changed behaviour.

If failures are inevitable in uncertain environments, we may also contemplate the idea of resilience training – a concept successfully introduced in both the military and in schools by the godfather of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. Part of the training involves building psychological fitness, which involves challenging the default responses to failures referred to above. This process starts by helping individuals understand that their response to an adverse event is the result of their beliefs, not the event itself, and then teaching them ways to dispel unproductive beliefs about the failure quickly and effectively. 

We’ve all been to one workshop or another, coming away feeling enthused and excited to change our practices and before we know it, we’re back in the usual patterns of work and all is forgotten. So how do we develop the right habits when it comes to making the most of our failures? It requires the kind of practice in which experts engage. Anders Ericsson  – ‘the expert on experts’ – calls this purposeful practice in his book Peak

Unlike regular practice, purposeful practice has a number of features including being focused on well-defined, specific goals; involving feedback, and involving getting out of your comfort zone. Applied to the context of maximising the learning from failure, purposeful practice might involve investing resources into a highly uncertain project. It might also involve being specific about what we want to learn from the project. And finally, it might involve regularly eliciting feedback both during and after the project. 

The knock-on effect

This feedback might include technical data as well as other data from project team members, users and other stakeholders. Provided regularly, this can limit the escalation of commitment but also yield new, surprising information. Should failure occur, one useful method for fostering and capturing the effects of purposeful practice might be the creation of a failure report. 

A failure report captures reflections on the failure and in so doing clearly identifies the lessons learned from these. Knowing that you will have to create a failure report at the end of any project is likely to foster the discipline of purposeful practice. The benefits of creating such reports are likely to be the opening of dialogue around failure and help normalise acceptable failures. The knock-on effect is encouraging innovation and appropriate risk taking. 

Risk taking and innovation run counter to many individuals’ natural inclination to avoid failure. Future leaders therefore play a key role in creating what Professor Edmondson refers to as a ‘psychologically safe’ environment. To create such an environment, leaders will need to help their followers understand the hallmarks of intelligent failures and how to design projects such that learning can be maximised if failure occurs. 

A culture that shares and forgives failures

In her book The End of Competitive Advantage, Rita Gunther McGrath, Professor of Management at Columbia Business School, argues that all organisations need to create a pipeline of transient advantages to replace those that have been competed away. 

Designing a systematic innovation process that supports experimentation, with intelligent failures built into the process, will therefore become all the more important. 

A key component of any such process will be the creation of a culture that shares and forgives failures and even celebrates them if they have been designed intelligently and lead to valuable learning. This might involve leaders sharing their own failures or conducting an intelligent failure audit like the one suggested by Ashley Good, Founder of Fail Forward, an organisation that helps other organisations learn, innovate, and build resilience. 

Learning should take place after both successes and failures. Although the incentives to do a’ post-mortem’ following a failure may be greater, we may need even stronger incentives to understand why we succeeded. Therefore, while it is important to teach students about failure, it is just as important to teach them concepts such as purposeful practice, resilience and tools to facilitate systematic reflection to help them through both the ups and downs.

Deniz Ucbasaran is Professor of Entrepreneurship at Warwick Business School

Applying original thinking to business

Business Schools must encourage independent thinking and bravery in their students to help prevent future financial crises, says Fiona Devine OBE, Head of Alliance Manchester Business School. Interview by Jack Villanueva and David Woods-Hale

What were the key points of your presentation at AMBA’s 2018 Global Conference for Deans and Directors? 

I wanted us all to reflect on the global financial crisis of 2008 because the causes and consequences of that crisis are still being felt today and will be for some time. 

I wanted us to think about its impact on the world with a particular focus on leadership and management education. We have to produce the leaders of tomorrow who still take issues of corporate governance very seriously. There are many examples in the business world and in all aspects of life in which we have to think about fraud, accountability, corporate governance and how we address those issues. 

In light of that, how do you think Business Schools should be preparing MBAs to be leaders of tomorrow?  

Business Schools should be producing well-rounded people. By that, I mean people who understand business in the wider context – the social, economic and political environments in which businesses are operating. 

They need to understand this external environment as well as the environments of the organisations in which they’re working.
I think business leaders of the future need to understand how to manage change, how to lead change, and how to deal with risk and uncertainty. 

How can we be sure that the skills that are currently being taught are the right tools to safeguard against another financial crisis?

We’ll only know that when there isn’t another one. 

I don’t suppose we’ll never have crises in the future. But there should be people who will have the independence of mind to step up and say when there is uncertainty about issues. It doesn’t have to be a big crisis for people to draw attention to something. It’s about having the independence of mind and the courage and bravery to say something different – and not be part of group think. It’s about reflecting on and challenging things that come along if they don’t feel right. 

Do you think MBAs are being taught the necessary skills to succeed? 

I would hope so, as a Business School Dean. They will be taught what’s needed if the curriculum is up to date. An old curriculum doesn’t serve anybody, so we want an academic community that is abreast of the latest developments in the world of business and how it’s changing; and always bringing theory and practice together. 

Our strapline in the Business School in Manchester is ‘original thinking applied’ and it is really about defining theory and practice. Theory is often speculative and not grounded; it’s about connecting this to practice and this is very important and I know that many Business School Deans aspire to achieve it. 

How important is the continuation of learning after achieving an MBA? 

It’s hugely important. We all talk about it and we know that in a world of change, risk and uncertainty, it’s important to have the space to step out of your organisation, find a platform to talk to people about issues and challenges and get advice. 

Executive education and continuing professional development provide that space for you to do that. It’s easy when you’re in an organisation to think you’re the only person facing these problems and you’re the one who has to come up with novel solutions, but often when you join an executive education programme you’ll find yourself confronting similar dilemmas and challenges so it’s good to have those conversations and join that collective discussions about the best ways forward. 

In what ways have Business Schools adapted sustainable leadership into their programmes? 

Sustainable leadership is to do with resources and how you use them efficiently and effectively for the long term. One of our preoccupations is with environmental sustainability – but there are other forms – and in Manchester we have scholars working in this area. 

For example, there are lots of discussions at the moment about the need to move to a low-carbon future, but how do organisations get there? It’s a huge transition, especially if you’re a dominant player in a particular market. How do we get there? This has to be a core part of the curriculum [in Business Schools] whether it’s in the MBA or electives on specialist masters or undergraduate programmes. There’s a high demand for these programmes from students. 

What are some of the innovative teaching methods being used to prepare the leaders of tomorrow? 

Teaching has changed considerably over the past 10-20 years, most notably because of new technology. The days when you would go into a lecture for an hour of being talked at, as a passive audience member, are long gone. 

Technology has allowed us to do amazing things in the classroom and that learning engages students a lot more. It’s not about passive learning, even in large lectures. Material can be presented in innovative ways, using apps and gamification, to help people learn and think in active ways. 

Is the need for innovation a major challenge that Business Schools face? 

Like any other organisation, Business Schools have to think about change, evolution and relevance. Business Schools have to be useful to the business world, serving local as well as international communities. 

The biggest challenge is the politics of today – will the world remain as international as it has been for the past 20 years? Will we embrace people of all nationalities moving around the world and studying at Business Schools? Will people still feel comfortable to do this as the politics of the world changes? 

Which is the bigger issue for Business Schools: the volatile economic environment or barriers to student mobility? 

International mobility is important, not only for the Business School world but education in general. The academic world has enjoyed a surge of interest from students coming to Business Schools from all around the world and it would be shame if we lost that confidence people have to travel. 

We’ve got to think about keeping students up to date with current debates about politics, looking at international relations in terms of trade, how countries collaborate with each other, and all those sorts of issues. These are important for understanding businesses and what happens in the business world.

What innovations have you seen in Business Schools that have the potential to change the way businesses do things? 

There are lots of things out there and even as a Dean of a Business School, you hardly know the breadth of innovations happening in your own School. 

I’ve been interested in knowledge-transfer partnerships, in which Schools work with organisations. I have a number of colleagues working with legal companies at the moment, around legal tech. They’re exploring changes happening with legal technologies, how that’s disrupting the legal world and also how data is disrupting this sector, in the same way as fintech has disrupted the finance sector. 

Academics are bringing their expertise to the areas of solving business problems and helping companies through this. It’s important to be useful. 

How can a Business add value to a corporate with which it’s working? 

There are many ways we can work with corporates. Business Schools act as a platform to bring people together to discuss important topics. 

Manchester Alliance Business School recently held a talk on the industrial strategy in the UK, bringing people together to talk about this. What was gratifying about this event was that people were sharing business cards with each other. We can be a place where big ideas are discussed and we can bring solutions to problems as well.

Fiona Devine OBE is Head of Alliance Manchester Business School and Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester. 

Why old business paradigms no longer work

The way we do business is changing. As a result, that the old paradigm of ‘win-lose’ is dying out, and anyone still operating in this way looks set to become obsolete. 

Our ability to survive this shift depends on our skill at adapting to the environment – the basis of Evolutionary Theory. 

Survival of the fittest is not about being the strongest, biggest or fastest, but it is about what is the best ‘fit’ for the environment. When the environment changes, the fittest adapt, they are the survivors. 

You might think that if a company isn’t in the business of creating something that can be digitalised, they don’t need to worry. You’d be wrong. In the cultural evolution of our time, organisations need to be aware of the changes so they don’t disappear.

Every era of humanity has cultural shifts where the mass population decides that something previously ignored is no longer acceptable, such as the trafficking of slaves. As we advance as a society, the overlooked become something the majority of the developed world disapproves of. 

Now, the vast accumulation of wealth, without consideration for others, is on the list of activities that are no longer acceptable.

The next phase of humanity is about being decent. It’s about knowing we are consistently doing right by other people – and ourselves. If you think this is just limited to political opinions and parenting, think again. 

The businesses who fail to acknowledge this shift, from win-lose to win-win, will fail to survive and those that are among the first, will thrive. It’s about clearly demonstrating your commitment to being a force for good – in your company, your community, and on your planet. That in itself is a beautiful opportunity, where you can create a lot more than monetary wealth, get to raise kids who aren’t embarrassed by your unethical policies, are proud of what you do, and don’t have to be begged to visit your deathbed to hear your dying regrets.  

This is why you have to pass all your decisions through the win-win filter.

It has to be from the inside-out, because the way you treat your employees, your investors, your customers, and the planet, is increasingly related to your profitability.

At the very centre of a true win-win is honesty, absolute transparency, and open communication. Those who can approach business with honesty in order to create genuine win / win outcomes, are the fittest, and they will survive. Applying this outlook to every situation may take some time at first, but it gets easier with practice – and it will ensure that your decisions are future friendly, and allow you to shift smoothly into this new paradigm of business.

Michelle Lowbridge is an author of numerous books, and a business owner.

Investing in your personal purpose to become a better leader

It’s time for our personal purpose to step into the light and shape our leadership style, writes Laura Wigley

Purpose. Our plan. Our life. Our mission. The thing we wake up for every day. At work, thanks to a revived focus on creating a great working culture – imbued with vision and a reason for being – we focus heavily on the business purpose: its mission, its values. 

Yet personal purpose, the thing that drives everything we do as individuals, is often left at the wayside and seen as something that should only be focused on outside of work, if at all. 

The world of work continues to change, with the challenges of work-life balance and operating in a connected world two of the most significant for employers. Should we, as leaders, bring our personal purpose to work? It is the norm to integrate work and home lives? Realistically, businesses only talk about the future in business or leadership terms. But perhaps organisations should be supporting us, as leaders, to think more widely and to define our life purpose? Should they be helping us to achieve the balance we desire and encouraging us to view our work as part of something bigger?

The argument for alignment

I believe the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Unfortunately, however, given the way most businesses are currently organised, there is no opportunity to achieve this deep self-exploration. There is no moment to be mindful of who we are and what we stand for. Yes, we’re encouraged to have a leadership purpose – how we want to be seen as a leader or to define our authentic leadership style – but this is rarely considered alongside personal purpose. If businesses want to create and motivate brilliant leaders and to deliver a sustainable leadership pipeline, this has to change. For me, defining personal purpose is the most important thing you can do for your own personal development, because investing time here will ensure all subsequent decisions can be based on a clear rationale and will support the achievement of long-term goals. 

I would also argue that, for organisations, providing this deep support and guidance for their leaders is one of the most effective, long-lasting investments they can make. Ensuring leaders are clear about what they stand for as an individual can be the foundation for ongoing, self-driven development, engagement and motivation. It also has the potential to help the business stand out from the crowd: going beyond everyday corporate thinking when investing in their people. 

Sure, it’s difficult to see a direct return on investment and there is a risk that people will leave the organisation following such exploration, but creating this type of clarity is a direct way to promote engagement right to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and to increase discretionary effort. It reminds me of that much-quoted dialogue been a fictional CEO and his financial director. ‘What if we invest in them and they leave?’ asks the latter; the CEO responds: ‘What if we don’t and they stay?’

Leadership purpose versus personal purpose 

As US politician Sharron Angle once said: ‘There is a plan and a purpose, a value to every life, no matter what its location, age, gender or disability.’

Everyone has a driver that gets them out of bed in the morning, whether it’s raising their family; giving something back to society; achieving career success or some other personal purpose. It’s personal purpose that motivates you. It’s the reason you do the things you do. It could centre around family, friends, health, career or spirituality but it will be unique to each of us. Some may realise their purpose early on, others a little later. But, eventually, everyone will find they have an in-built compass guiding them towards something that resonates and rewards them. 

By contrast, not everyone will develop a leadership purpose. Leadership purpose comes about only when someone has a desire to lead others. Once you become a ‘leader’, whether that’s on the sports field, in business or in a war zone, you’re typically encouraged to define your leadership purpose or vision, describing what it looks, sounds and feels like. This purpose focuses on how you wish to lead; what’s important to you in your leadership style; the sort of leader you’d like be seen as. 

In my opinion, a leadership purpose is not sustainable or rewarding on its own. No matter how good a leader you are, if you’re not also tapping into or fulfilling your broader personal motivations, it’s not going to fulfil you in the long run. Over time, this may prevent you achieving your potential in work or life.

A thought here: I don’t believe it’s wrong to invest all your time and energy in your career, as long as you’re mindful of the trade-offs you’re making in other areas of your life. You must ensure you’re focusing on the things that mean the most to you, deriving motivation and satisfaction from your work, and embracing the ‘imbalance’ rather than seeing only the sacrifices made. 

In an interview with the CoFounders Lab, Storenvy founder, Jon Crawford, summed this up perfectly, saying: ‘Work, sleep,
family, fitness or friends – pick three. It’s true. In order to kick ass and do big things, I think you have to be imbalanced. I’m sure there are exceptions, but every person I’ve seen riding on a rocket ship was imbalanced while that ship was being built. You have to decide if you really want it.’

The ideal, however, is perfect alignment: leadership purpose which encompasses personal purpose to create a balance in both work and life.

How to achieve the balance

The route to achieving a perfect balance is not simple. It’s not something you can achieve alone and it’s certainly not something that can be achieved in a day. Once set out, it becomes a regular exercise – refining it, developing it and adjusting it according to your current situation and your progress. However, it can be achieved. For me, there are three key elements that promote success in identifying, communicating and actioning your purpose. 

The first element is impartiality: gaining an outside perspective to help you ask yourself, and dissect, the tough questions. Using a coach or someone who isn’t linked to your organisation can help you uncover and drive your understanding of what you stand for, though this can be harder to justify to senior management, from an ROI perspective, than corporate coaching. With personal coaching, it is unlikely that there will be open goals that are shared with the company, or a specific business challenge to focus on. The session must simply support private exploration. Some numbers-driven organisations may baulk at the request, but it is important for individuals to open up completely, without the threat of repercussions.

The second element, and the one that requires the most work – and is often be achieved through personal coaching – is to become clear what you stand for, both personally and as a leader; achieving an understanding of your values, your motivations, your needs. My framework for this is simple and can be used to help you discover your personal purpose. You should then apply it continuously to all you do as a leader. It comprises just four steps: define, create, plan and do.

The third and final element to ensure a link back to your organisation and career is an honest and transparent relationship with your line manager, where you are ready to help them and they to help you. While you can choose what to share, and how much to share, about your personal purpose, it’s important that there is maturity in your relationship with your manager so that you can support and embrace this. This is because, once you’ve achieved this level of clarity, you may want to change the way you operate as a leader which requires an honest conversation with your employer. 

You may also need to sell these changes to your employer. Start the conversation on the right foot. Consider how you could demonstrate the positive impact your changes or requirements would have on the business. For example, if you’ve defined your purpose as ‘giving back’, you may want to volunteer during the week, or become a mentor for those who value your expertise. Whatever it is, you need to ask yourself: ‘What is the business case?’ You need to sell the idea to the business and create a win-win scenario.

What this means for organisations

Very few large businesses are set up or ready to have conversations about personal purpose, and how to align this with business purpose, as they are a broad departure from the traditional way of doing things. But organisations need to recognise there is more than one way of achieving success. Being open and committed to investing in coaching relationships could achieve less tangible, but important, outcomes. Be open to individual workers’ suggestions and requests when they do share them and role model from the top. 

Taking time to consider, define and set out your personal purpose is an essential tool in the leadership toolbox. Time invested here has the potential to drive motivation, engagement and achievement, way beyond the original investment. As author Eugenio Pirri, Chief People and Culture Officer at Dorchester Collection, says in his book, Be A People Leader: ‘Unless you truly understand who you are, how can you possibly help someone else grow as a person, grow their career or ensure they reach their
full potential?’  

Life is a balancing act. Knowing your purpose is the key to achieving this equilibrium happily and sustainably.

Laura Wigley is the former Global Talent and Development Director for luxury hotel management company, Dorchester Collection, and is now People Director at luxury health club operator, Third Space.  

Treating the executive team as ‘customers’ in improvement initiatives

Fully engaging the executive sponsors is vital in sustaining the success of any improvement programme, writes David Mann

Proactive engagement by executives is essential for the sustained success of large-scale improvement initiatives. Engagement means going beyond reporting on occasional endorsements, messages,
or visits to encourage frontline workers. In this article, I’ll explain why engagement is important and describe an approach that makes it meaningful and valuable to executives as well.

I will start with an example from personal experience, following this with an important characteristic of improvement initiatives. 

Case study of a lean initiative

About 10 years ago, I was leading an internal consulting team supporting an ‘office’ lean initiative. At 18 months, we had coached people from 50 cross-functional business process improvement projects, involving individuals from sales, marketing, distribution, customer service, order entry, database, engineering, procurement, legal, tariff compliance, and finance groups. We focused only on business process that crossed at least one internal boundary. Many of the projects we worked on tackled longstanding problems – 20 years-plus in some cases – that remained unresolved despite repeated efforts. 

On average, the improvements across these 50 business processes involved a halving of end-to-end timescales and of delays, errors and reworking, and handoffs. There were direct cost savings of approximately $5m, and substantial capacity freed by reducing non-value-adding activity. By any objective criteria, our team was successful. 

I met monthly with my boss, a Corporate Officer, Vice President, and one of four of the CEO’s direct reports who sponsored our team’s work. Meeting at 18 months, she told me directly: ‘David, you have a problem!’ She explained that she and her executive peers had roughly an 18-month attention span for programmes such as the office lean initiative, and that despite our success so far, our executive sponsors were losing interest. ‘After that,’ she continued, ‘we start looking around for the next thing to drive improvement. You have to find a way to involve us!’ 

With initiatives such as lean, six sigma, quality, and safety improvement programmes, it takes two or three years before results show on corporate financial statements. I’ve worked in lean transformation for more than 25 years. Lean ‘tools’ produce improved process performance right away, whether in healthcare, administrative, service, technical professional, or manufacturing processes. Just ask the people who’ve been involved in the projects! But for those improvements to accumulate to corporate-level impact takes time. 

Performance pressure on senior executives is intense; and the aforementioned savings over 18 months, in a Fortune 500 company, amounted to a ‘blip’, not an amount that made a discernible impact on corporate financial statements. 

So, after 18 months of support with nothing showing on the financials, they begin looking for the next big thing. 

I thanked my boss for her candour, and took her news back to my team. We stepped back and followed our own advice: ‘Value is defined from the point of view of the customer,’ is the first principle in lean. We hadn’t thought of our executives as customers, though in fact they were. What we’d been delivering to them – visits to project teams and activity reports – had not met our executive sponsors’ criteria for value, or for involvement. 

Like many other improvement disciplines, lean, a term coined to describe Toyota’s business during the late 1980s, has its own language, approach, and terminology. Much of its terminology is in Japanese, reflecting the influence of Toyota’s lean production system. None of our executives spoke Japanese. 

Lean business process improvement teams used value stream maps which make visible the movement of information and material through process steps and between departments, especially useful in business processes that cross internal (and occasionally external) boundaries. No aspect of these maps is intuitively obvious; business processes do not appear on organisation charts, and none of our executives was a fluent interpreter of value stream maps and their related measures (for example, process time as a percentage of total cycle time).

We wanted to teach our executives about lean as we had learned it, through exposure to lean applications by project teams. So, we arranged executive visits to meet lean teams in their work areas. The team would make a presentation, sometimes prepared, sometimes off the cuff, but always using terms and tools unfamiliar to the visiting executive. On our part, we did nothing to prepare the executives for the visits other than naming the project, walking them to the area, and introducing the team. 

Our executives were socially skilled and used to making conversation. After listening to these nearly opaque presentations, the executives thanked the teams for their efforts, and then turned to more familiar topics, such as the state of the business, sales wins, or enquiries about people’s families.

When our team reviewed the records of these executive visits during the year we had been running them, we found exactly half had been cancelled and never rescheduled. Clearly, our executives were not finding value in visiting lean projects. If you added that to no significant financial impact, no wonder we were losing their interest.

Reflecting on this, we reached several conclusions that we used to restructure and resuscitate the project visits to make them meaningful to the executives. We assessed what we knew about our executives, recognising that they were bright, fast learners, with a high need for achievement. They tended to be competitive (having probably aced every test they’d ever taken), thirsty for hands-on influence in improvement initiatives and accustomed to being prepared by their staff members for unfamiliar situations. We recognised we were putting our action-orientated executives into passive roles that were not to their liking.

We had standards for lean management behaviours, practices, and tools in well-functioning lean areas from my book, Creating a Lean Culture. We based the new executive visits (called gemba walks) on the standards, creating a predictable, executive driven, repeatable process, with a clear agenda, content focus, and structure on a one-page gemba worksheet per standard. 

The revised visits had questions for the executives to answer, from their observations, and conversations around the project area. Importantly for our competitive, high- achieving executives, the new approach included a test: how accurately did executives rate the project on the criteria included in that visit’s lean management standard? 

We were sure we had an improved gemba walk process. As a final step, we made explicit the rationale for executives’ participation; we were sure they would find this meaningful in their own terms.

Senior executives have two unique managerial responsibilities: responsibility for strategy, and responsibility for the integrity of their chain of command. Most executives endorse a lean strategy essentially on faith, based on the advice of trusted advisors and examples of similar organisations’ successes. They lack experience of implementing Lean, and are not interested in gaining it. They’ve been persuaded lean will help reach their organisation’s goals, so they sign up. 

They receive reports (abstracted and sanitised) describing lean activities. They see no impact on the financials. And, they don’t know how to assess for themselves the true status of the initiative and how it’s actually supported within their organisations. 

Here, the tools, behaviours, and practices of the lean management system come to the fore. The management system was developed to support and sustain the underlying, and more technical, lean production system. The state of the management system reflects the health of the production system. Therefore, learn to assess the health of the management system, and you’ve learned how to judge directly for yourself the adequacy with which the production system is being implemented, and the integrity of its deployment down your chain of command. 

Executives learning to assess the adequacy of the lean management system readily develop a keen and accurate eye. In practice, most executives master each management system standard by the second gemba walk on it. Part of the mechanism for this is the test. As we’re leaving the area, I (or another internal lean resource) ask the executive how he or she rated, say, visual controls in a project team’s area. He or she usually assigns a rating of four or a high three (on a self-describing five-point scale). 

Such a rating is rarely warranted early on in the lean initiative, and the visited area is usually chosen because it needs improvement. The competitive, high-achieving executive has not passed the test. This opens a 90-second window for teaching, during which the lean resource explains what he or she saw, what better practice looks like, and why it’s important. In my experience, most executives are single-trial learners, quickly grasping what good and poor practice look like. 

With this knowledge, executives can assess the state of the management system at the frontline, getting first-hand knowledge of the health of the lean strategy they’ve endorsed on faith. And they can assess, first-hand, the integrity with which their chain of command is deploying the lean strategy. 

Consider when an executive asks a frontline worker or supervisor to explain an aspect of the management system (virtually all of which is visually displayed), and the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘we were just told to do this, but I don’t see how it’s helping’. The executive learns two things: First, somewhere up the chain from the frontline, there’s a lack of integrity, a weak link not reinforcing the lean strategy. Second, the lean strategy is in trouble, at least in the area visited. 

Responding to situations like this is uniquely an executive responsibility. He or she should explain to the supervisor or frontline worker why the particular element of lean management is important, and how it’s supposed to help, and then move on. 

The problem, a serious one, is elsewhere. Find the subordinate manager who is the weak link, walk an area with him or her, and explain what you expect to see and why.

Go back in two weeks’ time in a different area within the remit of that subordinate with him or her. If the same problem shows itself again, a more pointed conversation should ensue.  

For my team, the end result was a happy one. Not a single restructured executive gemba walk was cancelled and, over the next four years the lean team remained in place. Lean in the company’s offices is deeply engrained in a revitalised corporate culture, literally ‘the way we do business here.’ Executives have the knowledge to judge for themselves the health of lean business process operations. Cumulative results of widespread focus on improvement are visible in the corporate financials.

David Mann is the author of Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions. The book was awarded the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence in 2006. Mann is a frequent consultant, trainer and speaker on lean leadership and management, and earned his PhD at the University of Michigan.

Creativity as an import-export business: network your way to innovation

Good, innovative ideas have social origins, so become a bridge between different groups to broker breakthroughs, advises Judith Perle

Networks are vital to innovation. True or false? 

I make my living by teaching people about networking – what it is, why it’s helpful and, crucially, how to do it better. So perhaps you won’t be surprised if my answer to the question above is, unequivocally ‘true’. 

I’m not alone in my view; in fact, a plethora of academic research – and practical business experience – supports my stance and, over these two pages, I will take a look at some of the evidence.

First out of the hat is the work of Ronald Burt, Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago. In a 2014 study, ‘Structural Holes and Good Ideas’ published in  the American Journal of Sociology, he reported on the findings of a survey of 673 managers who ran the supply chain of a large US electronics corporation. 

Burt looked at the shape and size of their professional networks, and how they interacted with colleagues within their business units, as well as elsewhere within and outside the company. Second, he measured two things: the likelihood of their expressing a new idea, and the likelihood that senior management would engage with that idea and judge it to be valuable.

Burt’s results show that innovation isn’t necessarily born out of individual genius or, to use a well-worn cliché, ‘blue-sky thinking’. Instead he demonstrates that the individuals who build diverse networks, so that they themselves become bridges (or brokers) between different social or professional groups, are at greater ‘risk of having a good idea’. 

Judith Perle

Why? As Burt puts it: ‘An idea mundane in one group can be a valuable insight in another.’

Not rocket science, perhaps. But the idea that good, innovative ideas have ‘social origins’ is powerful nevertheless. To quote Burt’s own succinct phrase in the same report: ‘This is not creativity born of genius; it is creativity as an import-export business’. 

Innovators aren’t necessarily exceptionally smart people with exceptionally creative minds – bright sparks who think differently. They can be people just like you and me, who do two very important things differently: they mix with a wide variety of individuals – not just their close friends – and they listen as well as talk.

But not all networks are the same. 

In 2010, Louise Mors, Professor of Strategic Management and Globalisation at Copenhagen Business School, conducted a study of a global consulting firm and her findings were published in Strategic Management Journal under the title ‘Innovation in a global consulting firm: When the problem is too much diversity’. Mors set out to understand more clearly ‘how network structure affects the ability of individual managers to innovate’.

To innovate successfully, partners and senior managers in knowledge-based businesses actually have to deal with two challenges. First, they have to find novel information and ideas. And second, they need to be able to evaluate them, spread the word and, finally, implement them. Successful innovation isn’t just about having good ideas. Putting these ideas into practice and getting buy-in from colleagues is equally important.

Mors found that managers deal with both of these challenges by nurturing and tapping into different sorts of personal networks, both within and outside the organisation. She reported that finding innovative ideas is best achieved through an open network, in which relatively few people are connected to each other. Interacting with a very wide variety of people, from different backgrounds and with different mindsets, exposes managers to more and more varied ideas. 

On the other hand, if an innovator wants to implement a new idea or persuade others to do so, it’s easier if his or her network is denser, with more overlapping connections. In her study, Mors doesn’t explain why, but it is safe to assume that the people in these denser networks talk to and respect one another. 

You don’t necessarily need to convince each and every member of your network separately; by talking to each other they will help spread the word, and do some of the work for you.

In a very different study among open source software developers, Karim Lakhani, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, came up with similar findings: often, he says, it was ‘outsiders – those with expertise at the periphery of a problem’s field – who were most likely to find answers and do so quickly’.

Open innovation

Many organisations recognise that networks and networking are critical to innovation. That’s why they are realising the need to encourage their staff to mingle and talk to each other, both internally and with colleagues in the wider business network, on a social, as well as a purely instrumental, level. Water coolers, canteens and social activities all have an important role to play – as do more formal contexts such as conferences, seminars and other professional gatherings.

It’s also why so many mega-corporations are turning to open innovation in order to maintain their competitive advantage. Instead of confining innovation within a fortress-like, internal research and development lab, corporates such as Procter and Gamble and GlaxoSmithKline are demolishing those walls and asking the network to provide new ideas and new solutions. 

Everyone benefits

Returning to Burt, it’s interesting to note his data revealed that active networkers, who act as brokers between groups, reap personal benefits too in the form of ‘more positive performance evaluations, faster promotions, higher compensation and more successful teams’. Put simply, there’s plenty of evidence to show that by nurturing a wide-ranging network, individuals are much more likely to be successful in their careers. 

So what’s good for your employer in terms of successful innovation, turns out to be good for you too.

The benefits of socially generated innovation aren’t confined to individuals, or even ‘joined together’ as companies, though. Cities and societies can benefit from this too. 

Richard Florida, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and Professor of Business and Creativity at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, has developed what he calls the Gay Concentration Index, which he describes in his book The Rise Of The Creative Class. He writes that the tolerance a city shows for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people correlates rather well with how successful that city is in today’s fast-moving world. 

That’s not because people who are homosexual are more creative or intelligent.

It is simply because diversity leads to innovation and innovation leads to prosperity. The Gay Concentration Index is just a shorthand technique for measuring diversity. To quote Florida: ‘Cities with thriving arts and cultural climates and openness to diversity of all sorts… enjoy higher rates of innovation and high-wage economic growth.’

A case in point: Eureka

Reading about academic studies which show that networks can be the key to innovation is all well and good, but sometimes it’s easier to be motivated when you hear an engaging case study – so here’s a real story that Shell transformed into a short film for an advertising campaign a couple of years
back. (You can watch the film online).

The film shows Jaap van Ballegoolien, an engineer with Shell, who is struggling to find a way of tapping thousands of small pockets of oil in an oil field in south-east Asia. The only viable way of reaching the oil would be to drill thousands of wells – a solution which is both uneconomic and environmentally unacceptable.

On a visit home, Jaap takes his teenage son Max out for a hamburger and milkshake. As they talk, Max turns his straw upside down, bends the top and uses it to suck every last bit of gloopy milkshake from the bottom of the glass. Jaap is mesmerised – and an innovative solution to his technical problem in south-east Asia is born.

At the end of the film, we see Jaap proudly presenting his ‘bendy straw drill’ to colleagues. This innovative technology, born of an observant mind and a chance encounter, allows a single bendy pipeline to reach numerous pockets of oil.

In brief

If constant and continuous innovation is at least one of the keys to success in today’s fast-changing world, then it’s important to have more – and better – good ideas yourself, and to empower your teams to do the same. The answer isn’t simply to hire creative types, to ‘try harder’ or ‘be more focused’. In fact, sometimes, trying a little bit less and chatting a little bit more just might reap more benefits. 

Networking is about people. Talking to people, helping people and getting involved in their lives. Those who don’t mingle only with colleagues in the same company, the same department or the same sector, are more likely to be exposed to different ways of doing things. And so long as they are open enough to listen, creative enough to envisage possibilities, and perhaps humble enough to ask, they’ll be better able to transfer and adapt ideas from one context to another. Networking alone probably won’t give rise to a flood of innovation. But networking actively, and encouraging it among colleagues and staff, will certainly shorten the odds in favour of creating an innovative culture.

Judith Perle became involved in management training after completing the Sloan Fellowship at London Business School (LBS). While at LBS, she and her colleague Tony Newton realised that although many leaders pride themselves on having the hard skills to get the job done, these technical skills often only ‘get you through the door’.Success often depends on the ‘softer’ interpersonal skills that are too often overlooked or under-valued. Judith brings to her training work experience in business communication gained over a
career in publishing, branding and new business development. 

Email:  jperle@ManAdvan.com

Further Reading

Ronald S Burt, ‘Structural Holes and Good Ideas’ in American Journal of Sociology, Vol 110 No 2 (2004)

Richard Florida, The Rise of The Creative
Class Basic Books (2003)

Karim Lakhani, ‘Open Source Science: A New Model for Innovation’ in Working Knowledge: Harvard Business School newsletter (2006)

Marie Louise Mors, ‘Innovation in a global consulting firm: When the problem is too much diversity’ in Strategic Management Journal (2010)

The Network Effect
If you’d like to learn more about how to network, read Judith Perle and Tony Newton’s book The Network Effect. Written as an extension of their interactive workshops, the book walks you through everything you need to know about connecting with other people. It’s available from good bookshops, Amazon or directly from the publisher via
www.TheNetworkEffect.co.uk.