To walk in the shoes of someone else, you first have to take off your own

Know your customer! Understand the user! Know your enemy!

walk a mile in their shoesWe’ve all heard these calls. To best be able to sell to customers what they really need and will appreciate, to design things that people will use, appreciate and rave about to their friends and acquaintances – or to best beat your enemies – you first should know and understand them. Of course. That’s pretty self evident. But, it sure is easier to say than to do, at least than to do well.

Hearing to respond or listening to understand?

It is so easy to end up just scratching the surface, creating an impression of understanding, but without depth and true insight. You “measure and label” all possible dimensions, increasingly focusing on individuals or personas instead of anonymous market segments. All good. But, too frequently, you’re preoccupied with your own next move. A bit like someone hearing, but not truly listening, since they think of what to respond instead. Hearing, but not active listening, and definitely not empathic listening.

Context, history, drivers!

Apart from this eagerness of using what you hear to meet your goal instead of truly listening to understand, there’s often another big mistake: looking at them, but in your context, the basis for understanding Their Why. What is their history, their experience? What is the culture and habits in their company, geography or religion? Or maybe their experience has left them sensitised to expressions that are perfectly innocent to you.

This is actually a case of where it can serve well for someone like me to be aware of my white privilege. Let’s use the image at the top of this blog post for example (not mine originally, but copyright-free). It’s quite a difference for white, middle aged, heterosexual family fathers to put on high heels for a charity race, compared to what it would be like for teenagers in homophobic Russia, or in any country with a strong machismo culture, or homophobic religious beliefs. Or, as I suddenly realised when talking with a colleague about standing up against xenophobia and religious prejudices; for me, he is a valued colleague, a peer, but for the xenophobes, he is just another muslim immigrant from North Africa. Even if we say exactly the same thing, the responses will be very different due to who they think we are.

So, next time you try to “know your customer/user/enemy”, dig a bit deeper. Try to understand where they come from, what is their context and what drives them. I’m sure you will have greater success (although it may take a bit longer to get there).

Do you have similar experience? Or you disagree? Please comment!

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Persistent Team Chat, Merely a Gilded Reincarnation of Reply-to-All Email?

 

Persistent team chat has been the darling of the collaboration scene for a while now. The most prominent one being Slack, but also Atlassian HipChat, Cisco Spark, Microsoft Teams and now Watson Workspace from my employer. Cool, fast, flexible are words often used to describe the greatness of most of those products. There’s been an increase in complaints that they add to the communication overload we already suffered from, but I leave to others to voice their concerns over that. I have no intention to compare their features, characteristics and target audiences.

I want to discuss them conceptually.

For about a decade, I’ve been working devoted to the space of internal collaboration and networking tools and practices. From having had to, more times than I can remember, explain the business benefits of this new way to work* I have come to realise that those business advantages boil down to different aspects of either efficiency or effectiveness.

Efficiency

More efficient co-production of content (documents, spreadsheets and presentations typically, or for online publication in blogs or wikis) through sharing, commenting and collaborating instead of shuffling attachments around, leaving some poor sod to consolidate and redistribute, is usually a key element in generating efficiency. Reduction in version confusion and conflict is a great by-product.

Simplified communication is another. Typically from getting rid of Email Trees

Reduced reinvention of the wheel and shorter runway from building on shared work of others is another. It also reduces the frustration of being convinced that what you create is a waste of time, but you know that you won’t find what’s already “out there”.

These different flavours of efficiency are generated primarily from working towards a given goal with people you know already. The last one, a bit less.

Effectiveness

The different flavours of effectiveness generally result from greater transparency, people working out loud and from open dialogue. You don’t only collaborate with your team on producing something, you make it available for all your colleagues to re-use, to feedback on and to improve upon.

Instead of restricting your dialogue to people you know, you post on boards – your own or those of colleagues, in forums, in open communities of interest and so on, making it possible for anyone to answer, to help you or to pull someone into the dialogue who they might know have the answer.

This way, communication flows more freely, knowledge and experience is shared more widely, ideas and people meet by coincidence to inspire, engage and build new relations.

It also makes it more easy to find expertise, either through what has been shared or through ease of finding the people who has it, who can help.

All this results in increased agility, in better resilience (since knowledge is no longer hoarded but released from heads, hard drives and email files). Communication flows more freely, with reduced distortion and misinterpretation and employees become more connected, engaged and inspired – all key factors for innovation.

Persistent team chats are good for efficiency, but do little to improve effectiveness

An inherent characteristic is obvious in the name: “team” i.e. people you already know, usually with a defined goal.

Another characteristic comes from “chat”. In other words, a continuous flow of conversation, admittedly often with capabilities of adding attachments or links or to integrate with other services, but still in that continuous flow. With that continuous flow comes, automatically, a challenge to find stuff from the chat history. You might overcome it by a strong search engine. Microsoft have tried to approach this by creating a Sharepoint space for the team in the background, still is only for the team. IBM approaches it by adding cognitive computing to help identify highlights and action items. But still, the concept in itself generates a challenge to be solved.

Looking back at those two characteristics, persistent team chats aren’t that different from a long chain of reply-to-all emails, are they? At least not conceptually. You might add integration of bots and cool apps, cognitive capabilities or a file repository. You still restrict your collaborative effort to a limited group of people you already know. You still create a challenge to find stuff in the chat history, a challenge you need to solve. Where’s the wide sharing of knowledge and experience? Where are the inspiring “knowledge accidents”? Where’s the clarity of communications in all directions, up and down, across organisational boundaries, forming new relations between people with shared interest but otherwise unrelated?

Does this mean that persistent team chats are bad?

That is not at all the point I want to make. They definitely can add value and facilitate the way teams work. But

  • Persistent team chats are not enough on their own. They should be just one part of an entire collaborative landscape
  • They need to be supplemented by other capabilities offering structure and ease of finding both files and online content
  • and other capabilities enabling and encouraging working transparently, to the benefit of the entire organisation, not teams only
  • One stream of updates! We don’t want one more stream of updates. It only aggravates stress, confusion and distraction. The updates from the team chat must be possible to consolidate with all others.

What’s your experience from working with persistent team chats? From working and networking transparently? Do you agree? or not? and why?

*The new way to work really isn’t that new, is it? In many ways, this is how we used to work when companies were smaller and usually located in few places. The “new” is about being able to work so, via the internet, across borders – both national and organisational, great distances and time zones.

Social Change Communications

Seriously, I should rebrand this blog a “splog”, a sporadic blog! It’s been two and a half months since my latest blog post. Shame on me! I have to change my habits.

change-aheadTalking about change, let’s continue where I left off late August; changing change management. I promised then to expand on how an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) can facilitate your change management efforts.

Obviously, the inner circle can leverage a wide range of tools to make their work more efficient. They can develop and manage their plans in a community, share, comment and co-edit files to minimise confusion and effort duplication, they can discuss in a forum or in status updates and so on. But those things are a given. Let’s look instead at how the ESN can help the work outside of the change team and decision makers.

Let’s have a look at what you need for reasonably smooth, lasting change:

  • Understand the terrain – Face it. You will never understand the situation as-is as well as the people “out there”. Nor will you ever understand what their pains are or their aspirations. You need to get input from the field.
    • An ideation blog lends itself as well to gathering input – requirements – as it does to collect and evaluate ideas. Let people post their input, encourage others to comment to develop and refine. Ask them to vote to help you in your prioritisation
  • Clarity is key – Times of change are usually times of worry (at least by the people expecting to get impacted by the change). The main remedy is early, clear and frequent communications.
    • A blog (maybe a video blog) – is a perfect way to spread the word without risk for it getting lost in translation. Use blogs, early and continuously, to communicate the rationale, milestones and progress of the change programme
    • Wikis are great to post plans, new policies and procedures. The entire team can edit and they can be changed over time. As questions start to flow in, it’s easy for the team to create and maintain an FAQ in a wiki
    • If you happen to miss out on something in your blog or wiki, anyone can be allowed to comment, giving you a chance to fill the gaps, clear misunderstandings and kill rumours. Nice, ey?
  • Manage questions, manage worry – As I stated above, many get worried as soon as they hear a rumour of change coming. And worries is fertile ground for rumours.
    • Open forums allow people to air their worry and allows you to respond before they grow into rumours in email chains, at lunch tables or by the water coolers. As I mentioned above, the most frequent or most important questions could easily be turned into an FAQ, to simplify your response management.

Finally, if the change at hand involves acquiring or creating new units or teams, try to compare the effort of just pushing a button to create a community for that team or unit with restructuring and changing the navigation of your old fashioned top-down intranet with or asking an administrator to build a team site in clumsier tools than my favourite one.

Changing change management

In times of change, change management needs to change too.

I think we can all agree that we have never experienced such frantic change as we currently experience, at least not at such a world-wide scale. There may have been periods of rapid change before, but not spread widely across the globe in the way we currently see. Revolutionary ideas, technologies and trends seem to crop up wherever. And, through internet and our physical mobility, they can spread like wildfire across the globe.dust-1158884_1920

In this environment, if you stand still, you will soon be left in the dust, perhaps even reduced to a memory from days gone by.

That goes for change management consulting and consultants too.

Historically, change management has been about moving client organisations from an obsolete steady state….. to a new state, improved but still steady. That approach won’t fly any longer.

In todays environment of rapid and constant change, change management has to be about moving a client organisation from an obsolete steady state to a state of agility, a state of constant change readiness and development.

This is a much more fundamental change. Designing and implementing process changes, reskilling and reshuffling people just won’t do. Agility has to get engrained in the DNA of the organisation. Running a change programme without improving the capability of the organisation to change by itself is to short change your client. Honest consultants don’t manoeuvre to make clients dependent on them. They help clients to solve their own issues and to continuously improve.

If you’re familiar with me and my blog, you know what will follow and can stop reading here  😉

As improved collaboration and peer-to-peer communications of employees is a key factor to improve agility, enterprise social networks (ESN) should be leveraged or a be introduced in any modern change management effort; building bridges between silos, improving transparency and understanding of the organisation and of colleagues, boosting the capacity of catching signals of change or threat and the speed of relaying them to the right people, even if you don’t happen to know who they are, and ensuring that the leader’s messages on strategy and “state of the organisation” can be communicated without distortion throughout the organisation.

But there’s more. Not only do ESN enable the organisation to be more agile and resilient in the long run, they can also be leveraged to facilitate the change management effort. But more about that in an upcoming blog post.

Do you agree with me about changing from state A to state B is yesterday’s news? Any experience or difference of opinion to share? Please do, in the name of transparency and knowledge sharing.

Engagement, Inspiration and Innovation – Bringing lasting value for both customers and employees

engaged_saleI started this series of blog posts by stating that as the wheels turn faster, people more important than ever before. Then people had better be more engaged than the souvenir lady in this picture. A person who merely “goes through the motions”, mindlessly, without engagement and whose mind is anywhere else than in the present, is unlikely make any positively significant difference. And without engagement, there will hardly be much innovation either.

This is the last blog post of six on the theme of the advantages for companies and their employees of collaborating and working transparently. The previous are:

  • Overview – As the wheels turn faster, people are more important than ever before
  • Agility – More sensitive feelers and faster reaction
  • Resilience – Bouncing back from setbacks or daring to take on new challenges
  • Efficiency – Easier to find and leverage experts and experience
  • Effectiveness – Through more direct communication channels
  • Engagement, Inspiration and Innovation

These blog posts have been published in parallel in Swedish on the Think blog of IBM Sweden

Spend some thought on this video by Steven Johnson about where good ideas come from (I’m sure he will appreciate you buying his book, btw)

Isn’t it exactly environments like these we want to create and support in our organisations? Like the coffee houses of the age of enlightenment and the Parisian salons during the Modernism era. Environments where people and ideas meet, both on purpose and by chance and where you can find both likeminded to collaborate with and different-minded to get inspired by. Since long, farsighted architects have created office environments to generate random meetings, but how do we do when associates are spread across great distances? How do we do to involve both customers, partners and suppliers?

My answer is not surprising: Through a transparent work culture and tools for online collaboration

In online communities, discussions and through following updates by colleagues, maybe especially those a bit on the fringe, your understanding of what the company and your colleagues actually do, as does the understanding of how you can impact on results. The probability of random meetings with ideas, knowledge and interesting people is multiplied. The foundation for both engagement and innovation gets much more fertile.

If you have special interests or ideas you want to build on, but lack resources or have knowledge gaps, it becomes incredibly much easier to find likeminded to grow those interests with or to put together a team of volunteers with supplementing knowledge and skills to develop those ideas further. A paradise for intrapreneurs.

Just think of something as simple but inspirational as feedback (potentially simple and inspirational, that is). Usually it something that employees get rarely, usually from their manager in a strictly orchestrated appraisal ceremony. Not very simple and definitely not inspirational. How inspirational isn’t it instead to suddenly get a Like from a distant colleague who you might be acquainted with, but not necessarily, on that presentation you just shared or on your blog post? Or when you see how many have downloaded that Excel-thingy of yours? Or receiving a suggestion on how to improve what you are currently working on – from someone “who’s done it” before? How much more inspiring and motivating won’t it get to develop and share your knowledge and experience?

Most companies who introduce online collaboration platforms do it aiming at efficiency, aa I wrote about in the blog post, Efficiency – Easier to find and leverage experts and experience. I am certain that the long range boost in innovation and employee engagement is much more important, though.

If you want to read more about how we at IBM look at online collaboration tools and transparency, I recommend you to read “The only constant is change”.  And if you want to read more about how to transform your organisation to work more transparently, “Best practices for establishing a new way to work”.

What do you think of the value of employee engagement, innovation and what organisations can do to boost them?

Effectiveness – through more direct communication channels

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“Whisper” by ElizaC3

Do you remember when you played Chinese Whispers as a kid? One person whispers a message to a second person who whispers it on to a third who….until the last person tells everybody what he or she heard. The message used to be complete gobbledygook and you all had a great laugh. (What’s Chinese in that game, by the way?)

What was a fun game as a kid, is the default way of communicating in most organisations, at least in one direction. If it’s not the words of the leadership that get interpreted and distorted on their path to the employees, it’s the questions or attempts at communicating up the hierarchy.

This is the fifth blog post of six on the topic of benefits for companies and their employees to communicate transparently and collaborate online.

  • Overview – As the wheels turn faster, people are more important than ever before
  • Agility – More sensitive feelers and faster reaction
  • Resilience – Bouncing back from setbacks or daring to take on new challenges
  • Efficiency – Easier to find and leverage experts and experience
  • Effectiveness
  • Engagement, Inspiration and Innovation – bringing lasting value for both customers and employees

These blog posts are published in parallel in Swedish on the Think blog of IBM Sweden

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Is this how employees see the future? Photo by Broin under Creative Commons CCo

In times of rapid change, you can’t afford doing Chinese Whispers for the leadership team to communicate to the employees where you’re heading, why and how to get there. You can’t afford, neither the time, nor because of the risk of the message getting filtered or distorted along the way. Adding to that, surveys done by the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute show that “Leadership Future Vision” is the prime driver of employee engagement – for each and every year researched (2008-2012). You can’t afford to waste that potential either by not leveraging the possibilities available for clear and direct communications.

Current volatility and the frantic pace of change make communications in the other direction more important than ever. Partly to enable the leadership team to verify that their message has been received and understood,  partly for the employees to be able to ask for clarifications and supplementary information to make sure that they really have understood. But also to help the leadership to catch what’s happening “out there”, as I described in the third post in this series, about Agility. Having a whole lot of scouts out there is of little value if they cannot pass their observations on to the hub.

A good collaboration and networking platform provides all this, and more

By using blogs – text or video – leaders can broadcast their message to all employees directly and without any middlemen. Through commenting, employees can respond and ask questions if anything still was unclear to them. Since commenting is transparent, you can easily see if someone else has written what you had in mind and save time both for yourself and others by voting/liking on their comment, instead of repeating it. In this context, it is important that the leaders actually read and respond to comments. Anything else would be a waste of valuable feedback and jeopardise trust in that the leaders actually do care about their employees.

For simple grass root publishing, collaboratively, of more structured and lasting information, wikis are a splendid tool. Perfect for FAQ, policies, instructions and the like. Wiki pages can be commented on too. Upward communications has more facets but is made easier by the transparency achieved in a good collaboration and networking platform. For the leadership team to know what the employees think, which challenges they experience and need help with, which opportunities they spot and which trends they have spotted on the horizon… all they need to do is to listen. Maybe even by using social analytics software which are more common on external social networks. Listen to status updates, listen to forum discussions, listen to blogs, gather ideas and get them evaluated in ideation blogs. The possibilities are close to innumerable.

What do you think? Isn’t it upon time for employees not to have to fumble in the mists of insecurity and for leaders to get a chance to leverage all the information and experience that employees amass, instead of it getting stuck in mail chains or discussions around the water cooler? Do you have experience of your own to share?

If you want to read more about how we at IBM look at online collaboration tools and transparency, I recommend you to read “The only constant is change”.  And if you want to read more about how to transform your organisation to work more transparently, “Best practices for establishing a new way to work”.

Resilience – bouncing back from setbacks or daring to take on new challenges

Tougher together – How companies and their employees better can face setbacks and challenges through transparency and collaboration

Where should I stay and eat om my upcoming first visit to Madrid? How do I take a screen shot om my mobile phone? By which watering hole can I find animals to hunt? What did those poisonous berries look like, really? From the beginning of time, our best source of knowledge has been other people. We ask others for help or advice when our own knowledge, experience or skills fall short. Within the family, our village, our school, in Q&A columns of the papers, over the phone, on Facebook or on Twitter. But at work, who do we ask? And how?

This is the third blog post of six on the topic of benefits for companies and their employees to communicate transparently and collaborate online.

These blog posts are published in parallel in Swedish on the Think blog of IBM Sweden

Old style

In old style companies we tend to ask our colleagues we already know for help, or maybe some manager. Usually live at the office or via email. How many times haven’t we sent an email to someone only to get an automatic reply that they are on holidays or in training and will be back in a week or two. Or that they pass your question on to someone else who send it to yet another person who in turn passes it on to a fourth person who replies, four weeks later The answer is available on the intranet. Just follow this link.

Does it feel familiar? It was for me, too. But no more.

Sharing and caring

Nowadays, I ask my question in a status update on our social intranet. Maybe I mention a couple of persons who I guess may have the answer or if I guess that someone in their network has it (as mentioning them makes my question appear also on their board, for their network) or in a suitable online community. Usually, I get an answer within an hour or two. I rarely have to wait longer than until the next day. I even share half finished sketches of presentations and documents, stating “I know that this isn’t quite correct and will appreciate any help to improve or any other views”. Such an amazing response I have received! From the foremost experts in the field among my 400.000+ colleagues. Compare that with “Johnny is on vacation and will be back in two weeks”. Every time, it feels as amazing and empowering to be able to get help, without even knowing who to ask. There always seems to be someone who knows, who has sufficient time or willingness to reach out to help. Admittedly, it does help to have a pool of many colleagues at hand, but the positive effects show also in smaller organizations. An open and helpful culture is more important to have than an ocean of colleagues. As is a culture where it is accepted that everybody cannot know everything. Asking is nothing to be ashamed of. Just imagine being able to close a deal or solve a problem with the help of a colleague who you might not know, but who knows what you’re facing and how to resolve it..

It may not even be necessary to get hold of the actual colleague. Often it is sufficient to find the knowledge and the experience they have shared earlier. Either intentionally through working transparently, sharing their documents, presentation and other whatsits. Or unintentionally through answering questions from others in the transparent way I’ve described above. The more transparently everybody works, the easier it becomes to find what you need to overcome the challenges. And you can always ask the author for explanations or supplementary information. We do not realize how much we do know and can share with intention. The rest surfaces when we help others.

With such support it doesn’t only become much easier to bounce back after a setback, but also challenging your limits becomes much easier too.

Boston_marathon_mile_25_helper_050418

By Pingswept (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0] Helping a struggling runner at Boston Marathon

Enablers and obstacles

As mentioned earlier, a condition for this to work is that you have a culture of transparency, helpfulness and acceptance that everybody cannot know everything, of generously sharing your work products and of communicating transparently. And, as a fundamental enabler, that you have a collaboration and communication platform that makes all of this possible and that, through design, encourages and supports transparency rather than closing up.

The obstacles include, of course, a culture where you don’t dare to admit shortcomings, a culture of “withheld knowledge gives power” and without a sense of all working towards a common goal. But also technology can be an obstacle. Questions and answers via email benefits nobody except those involved in the correspondence (plus it takes much longer as I mentioned earlier, or results in an overload of many parallel conversations). The replies can’t be reused by others faced with the same challenge, but they have to search again for the people in the know who, in turn, have to answer the same questions all over again. Shared drives and closed team rooms do not create open collaboration either. They may be beneficial for those with access, but for no-one else. How many other team rooms with similar content do you think there may be in a large organizations, do you think?

Additional benefits for the company

The benefits for employees, described earlier, benefit their employers too, obviously. Employees being able to deal with challenges benefits the company too, of course.

But there’s even more in it for the companies:

  • As long as work is done in the old style, knowledge keeps being locked up with the individual employee. It’s locked up in their heads, on their hard drive or in their mail conversations. What happens if they disappear? The head disappears. The hard drive usually gets erased and the email on the server usually only resurfaces if it’s needed in a legal context. Remaining intellectual capital = 0. If employees work transparently, though, share their work and answer questions transparently, the knowledge stays within reach for all to use also after they have left. The dependency on the individual employee is reduced.
  • In addition, since the knowledge is easily available for re-use and you can Like what you have appreciated, since you can see the number of downloads and so on, you can easily see a de facto standard emerge, based on the benefits and appreciation of peers. Not bad, either, I’d say.

Do you have experience of your own of the difference of searching for help and knowledge in the old fashioned way and of doing it in a transparent organisation? Either inside your company or externally? Maybe in your personal life? I’d appreciate reading about it in a comment.

If you want to read more about how we at IBM look at online collaboration tools and transparency, I recommend you to read “The only constant is change”.  And if you want to read more about how to transform your organization to work more transparently, “Best practices for establishing a new way to work”.