Monday, 25 October 2010

Assume Nothing!

Last week, I attained the right honourable position of Judge Samantha Lizars. Only for about 2 hours admittedly, and not actually in a court room. Rather in a classroom, for one of the London heats of the nationwide Debating Matters contest.

The competition is aimed at encouraging A level students to have a go at debating. They are expected to be able to stage an argument on a tough subject, and then to defend and build their position under questioning from judges (the likes of me) and their peers. Many adults would rather chew off their own arm than have to do such a thing, so in my eyes just taking part is pretty brave. The experience is a really valuable one, especially if you keep at it, and good debating skills are applicable pretty much everywhere in life.

On the debate that I judged there was one particular mistake/lesson that stood out for me, as someone who makes a living from persuasive communication. It's worth mentioning, not to point and laugh at the school kids who had a go and made a mistake, but because so many professional people make this clanger day in and day out and don't even notice.

The topic being debated was, The Monarchy - arguments for and against an unelected head of state in the 21st Century.

On the face of it, this debate looks pretty one sided. The pro-republic argument has cool-headed logic, rationale and democracy on its side. By contrast, the pro-monarchy argument has its power in emotion and instinct. While emotion might be a powerful force in real life, it is a slippery platform to base an argument on during a debate.

But of course (and I know you know where this is going) the pro-republic team lost the debate. And why? Because they thought everyone agreed with them! They didn't think for a second that anyone really believed in the monarchy, because their experience tells them otherwise.

If you're 16/17 and surrounded by lots of people just getting to grips with politics and full of social ideals, supporting the monarchy just isn't cool. Anyone who does, isn't going to be loud about it, and it's easy to see how one could fall into the trap of not taking the opposing argument seriously.

Bad luck chaps. Thanks to this assumption, they didn't present many facts but rested on opinions. When they were asked serious questions they swatted them away like flies. As a result, they just weren't persuasive, because they didn't really believe they needed to try to be.

Scores of business leaders make this same error in their communications to their employees. They fail to consider how their audience really thinks and feels, assuming everyone wants the same as them. Lots of service agencies also make the same error, being sloppy in their efforts to persuade their clients of the things they think are obvious.

So I'd like to congratulate the losers of this round of Debating Matters, since they will now doubtless go on to be champions of the world at everything. They have already learnt from experience what so many of us fail to grasp: Presumption leads to lazy communication and lazy communication leads to losing stuff. Employees, clients and I'm afraid, school debates.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Work Space Design - An interview with trifle creative*

We all know instinctively that the space around us affects how well and how happily we do things in it. Anyone who has ever tried to join the Mile High Club in an aeroplane lavatory knows this to be true.

So work space design is an important thing for all businesses to consider. How productive can employees be in the space? Is it suitable for the kind of behaviour you want to foster? What about clients, or suppliers, does the space work for them? Whether you’re a one man band hanging out in a coffee shop, or a big old corporation these questions must be contemplated.

But while they’re easy questions to ask, finding the solutions can be a little more tricky.

To find out more and see if I could get some top tips for businesses, I spent some time with Emma Morley and Sejal Parekh from trifle creative*; a bespoke work space design company who passionately believe that every business can use their environment to drive increased productivity - whatever that looks like for them.

The trifle wisdom:

Start with the basics

trifle creative* believe that there’s no one size fits all way to design a work environment. What’s right for an ad agency, might be useless for a telecoms provider; so where do they start?

“All our work is insight led. We don’t form a judgement on a design until we have considered industry, brand, culture and people.’ said Emma, ‘We design spaces for each company to be a perfect fit to their culture... or to the culture they want to end up with.”

With remarkable self restraint when there are funky receptions to design, they start with the least sexy stuff. Storage and space design are key to giving each individual a space that they can work productively in.

“We’re very careful not to let aesthetics come before practicality. We spend a lot of time understanding the needs of all the stakeholders who encounter an office, then our design revolves around them,’ says Sejal, ‘we spend a huge amount of time on space planning for that reason, finding creative solutions for boring things like storage needs and cable management first.’

Understand the importance of personal space

It seems that much badly used space is to be found around desks, with cables everywhere and inefficient storage crowding in on people as they work. In these personal areas though, there is much resistance to change. It seems that separating people from their desk drawers is like whipping away an emotional crutch. Sejal explains why;

“Many employees don’t have much that they can control once they cross the threshold of their workplace. Their desk space ends up becoming a piece of their identity. Something they have dominion over and a sense of self around.”

Emma and Sejal have found that providing ways for people to express their own identities and take control of a space, can be dramatically effective in terms of behavioural change. “Whether it’s owning a locker for your coats and bags, or having a big wall with pictures of nights out or family - anything really - it helps employees to feel that their whole personality is recognised in the workplace. And for a place where you spend around 87% of your time, that’s psychologically very important.”

But pay attention to communal space as well

Most of the creative fun happens in companies’ communal areas, with individual workspaces being very much about design that enables good communication and a interesting working environment.

“But in communal spaces we can have some fun - and people get really excited by it!’ says Emma, ‘In particular, revitalising a kitchen has a massive effect on people’s feeling of being nurtured and appreciated.”

It’s not too hard to see the psychlogical reasoning here. Trifle also make the most of loos, reception areas and communal work spaces as key areas to create a great impression on both clients and employees and channel the spirit of the brand.

Another very important part of space design for productivity, is creating different zones for different types of working. People work in different ways, and with different jobs to do, so space needs to be flexible to accommodate that wherever possible.

“People know their own issues. We spend a lot of time gaining insight into what those are, and then come up with creative solutions to answer them.”

Facilitate Networking

A key element of success in any organisation, (but one which can be difficult to create) is the network of internal relationships which enable smooth operations. Aside from team building exercises, companies can feel quite powerless in creating these channels of communication. Can the office environment help?

‘Absolutely.’ says Emma, ‘People naturally come together in communal hubs, so we create places where we know employees will bump into each other (not literally), and start to chat’.

The layout of an office can significantly impact the work that happens there and it can be hard to see things clearly when you’re there every day. Sejal told me,

“We went to one company which was struggling with project communication. We walked in and realised they were all spread out and in the biggest desks I’ve ever seen! The answer? Smaller desks, made room for people to be closer together. They could speak to each other more easily and sure enough, after the refurb, everyone was saying how great the atmosphere in the office was.”

Emma adds that another one of their great successes was fitting a tiny little breakfast bar into the staff kitchen of a small office. ‘It gave people the permission and opportunity for informal conversation - and suddenly everyone was having breakfast meetings!’

This is a really interesting point. Often people aren’t sure what behaviour is considered correct at work and what isn’t. If they’re seen sitting and talking over toast, do they look lazy? Employers who want to encourage strong relationships and serendipitous meetings need to make it clear that talking over toast is welcome behaviour.

Don’t be afraid of colour

I had, (naively) expected that Emma and Sejal would reel off a list of pleasing colour rules - like in that Dulux advert. The truth, it seems, is that colour is a very personal thing. People have different associations that one might not expect. Their general advice:

In any big space, use splashes of bright colours, rather than vast dominant swathes.

Blue and green are colours that we naturally associate with outside space. If you have a dark basement office with little natural light, these colours can be useful in bringing the outside in.

Grey is a great foil for bright colours and contemporary look - but use it sparingly or you’ll end up with corporate dullness.

It’s important not to expect too much from anything you do in isolation. Painting a wall in a bright colour won’t achieve much.

Challenge your preconceptions

“We try not to bring any preconceptions about the kind of company we are designing for and the look we should end up with. There’s a perception that it’s only agencies, (and specifically London agencies at that) who have bright colours and interesting office design; but it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s no reason why an accountancy firm shouldn’t have the design that fits their culture and their people. And there’s no reason why an accountancy firm always have to have white and beige and navy blue to reflect their culture.”

Budget - don’t assume it has to be expensive

I venture the opinion that budget must drive a lot of companies to have the colours, fabrics, and spaces they do. The pair insist though that a good design doesn’t cost any more than a poor one.

‘Offices don’t have to be officey!’ cries Sejal, and so starts a diatribe on the evil that is the office furniture catalogue, which it’s clear these two feel personally scarred by. They feel strongly that the expense, dullness and medium quality of furniture often found in the back of a stationery catalogue is a very high price to pay for the convenience of getting everything you want out of one book.

They use Ikea as an example of furniture and environments, where great (always fresh) design, functionality and budget find their midpoint. Emma admits though that while she loves to use some of the Ikea range, she has also learned what to avoid;

‘They’re brilliant when you are working to a restrictive budget, but you have to know what to stay away from. Some of their stuff is brilliantly durable, but there are other items that won’t last a year!

Finally - If you do just one thing

A final trifle tip from each of the founders?

Emma: “It’s about getting an external and internal balance. Communal areas for staff to collaborate & socialise in are equally as important as having an impressive reception. Consider what kind of message you want your brand to give and how that is delivered to all your stakeholders; clients, employees and others.”

Sejal: “Remember your brand is about more than logo and colour pallet, it’s about what you stand for and that’s how you should express it”.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Bad news can be inspiring

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Posterous who I have a (totally unused) blog account with. The email was a very well worded apology that their servers had been hit by Denial of Service attacks and had buckled, and gone down. They came up again an hour or so later, but it seems the Posterous team and users continued to fight major problems for the rest of the week.

Now I don't actually use my Posterous account so I really didn't care, but the email caught my eye because it was such a brilliant use of 15 lines of text. The email came from the CEO and he used the space to apologise to his customers, tell them how hard they worked to fix the problem, and advertise the solutions they have found which make Posterous even stronger and better than before.

So far so smart. But it gets smarter. The CEO finished the missive by saying that he had 'never been prouder' of the Posterous team. He went on to name 3 of the key protagonists (Garry, Vince and Jackson) who had busted their guts, working nights and weekends and pointed out exactly what their contribution had been. Amazing! Remember this is in a letter to customers, not an internal pat-on-the-back email.

Beyond being a nice thing to do, this is such an astute move. Sachin Agarwal has turned what sounds like a hideous and demoralising week for his team, where one thing after another went wrong, into a complete victory. He has made them the heroes of the Posterous story and in doing so further embedded their personal involvement with the company. As a customer of course, I'm nothing but impressed. It sounds like they have a great team, they work together well, they know their stuff etc... In other words, this short, clever piece of communication satisfies every stakeholder.

Do you know of other examples of companies using a bad week at work to inspire their employees? Or companies who name and fame their employees to their customers when they've gone above and beyond? Do you do this in your company? Tell us your stories...

Friday, 30 July 2010

Communication for Inspiration : Give your team Obama skills

Yesterday I read the following irritated tweet from an editor at one of the national newspapers.

‘My desk phone is broken. IT man has taken it away. And a replacement? "Oh, we haven't got any". Marvellous.’

The cause of the frustration humming through this little tweet, isn’t I don’t believe, the lack of a phone. The quotation marks speak volumes. The frustration has come from the way this impediment to his working day was communicated. As an afterthought. A fact - unsoftened.

Its not what you said, its how you said it.

This is the case with so many examples of dissatisfaction in the workplace. All kinds of things happen at work, some good, some bad, some challenging. But the thing that people get emotional about - for better or for worse - is the way they’re communicated.

In some cases people don’t see it as part of their job to manage the experience of those working with them. These people won’t be ultimately successful without realising their mistake and changing their minds about this. It will often take a manager to point it out and might require some coaching to find a new way.

Other times, the will is there, but there’s a barrier which stops people from understanding each other. What works in one department is foreign to another. I remember one halleluja of glorious understanding in a meeting between a production team and a design team, when they suddenly realised that they had two different concepts of what the word deadline meant. Genuinely. Once they each understood the pressures on the other team and why they thought about deadlines differently, they worked out some new language that worked for them. Conversations and relationships improved dramatically.

And it can be even harder for those who find themselves in senior leadership positions. Having got to the top of their particular tree they suddenly find themselves on another steep learning curve. They have new pressures to face, new responsibilities and overwhelming claims on their time. Simultaneously they become very visible, everyone listens to what they say, comments on it, judges it. Engaging communication is a big part of their job and if they get their communication style wrong, the impact on employee motivation can be huge.

So what’s to be done? Well over at One Magnolia we had a think about this little problem and took as our muse, the disarming Barack Obama. What would happen we wondered, if Barack Obama were on our leadership team, or indeed manning an IT service desk. We think the answer is that the people around him would be all fired up, full of energy, and that they’d get an awful lot done! As a result of this pleasing fantasy, we’ve developed Communication for Inspiration. A training course that takes the example of the greatest communicators of our time and makes their brilliance accessible for use by business leaders and managers.

The point isn’t to turn everyone into Barack Obama and Richard Branson of course. It’s to help leaders and managers find their own superpowers when it comes to engaging their staff. We give them the tools and make them easy to use.

The course finishes with a brainstorm on the ways for leaders to create a communication culture throughout their company. One person inspiring others through their communication is great, but a whole company doing it, the whole time, is better.

Call us on 07921 484 385, or email to get course details of Communication for Inspiration : Give your team Obama skills.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Don't underestimate the girl on till 4

A 60 second exchange between two girls behind the tills at Waitrose yesterday reminded me that you can never can tell what someone's real skills are.

Girl A - "How was your break?"
Girl B - "What break?"
A - "Your break from work."
B - "Oh that! Actually I was still working, but yeah it was good."
A - "Really? Where were you working then?"
B - "Hong Kong"
A - "...What?"
B - "Hong Kong, I was doing an internship."
A - "Wow. Doing what?"
B - "Investment Banking."

And then they went back to packing shopping. How brilliant is that?! I bet there's more to Girl A as well. I see her often and she always has a glossy, sixties ponytail, bangs swept to one side and flicky eyeliner. I'm quite sure that she's Dusty Springfield in her spare time.

There's so much that we don't know about people, especially the people we work with. Busy, and with our own agendas, we tend to take them at face value.

So; how many amazing things don't you know about your own staff or colleagues? What skills do they have, that they're not getting the chance to use. How much more awesome a place would work be if you knew the whole story?

Friday, 11 June 2010

Engaging events

More and more frequently I'm being asked to knit together the two sides of my professional personality and advise on engagement in events. Which makes sense, given what an amazing channel live experience is for engagement of all kinds.

Here are five tips on making your event worth your investment:

1. Start before the event, ask your audience what they want to hear/learn/do.

People are more engaged if they've been asked for their opinion early on. If you don't know exactly who your audience are going to be, ask a sample of the same demographic what they would want, hypothetically.

2. Make sure your objectives are really clear in your team's minds.

Event planning is high tempo, a lot of hard work and often has a lot of stakeholders involved which can cause the agenda to weaken and become tenuous. Delegates will soon lose interest in an agenda with no clear purpose. Get the objectives signed off early with all stakeholders, and refer back to them throughout the process.

3. Take the audience on a journey

Whether it's a 20 minute new car launch or a 4 day conference, consider your message and how it is expressed through environment as well as content. Know what your audience are thinking to start with, and what you want them to be thinking by the time you're through. Then take them on a journey with you from one place to the other. Don't just bombard them with messages about Z if they're starting from A.

4. Get everyone involved.

If there is just one key to an engaging event, it's this one: Get people involved. Get them doing stuff. Every event is an opportunity to create/influence/change something, with a bunch of people who are rarely drawn together. All those minds in one place can make amazing things happen. If you are involving people and keeping them interested, they'll listen to, and understand your message.

5. Ask for feedback

Engagement is a continuous process. After your event keep people engaged by ending as you started - ask for their opinion. It may be that they've understood the message of your event but disagreed with it. They might have new ideas. They might want to collaborate on something new. You'll never know unless you ask the question. Once you've had that feedback, if you've got a mechanism for it, communicate with the people who attended your event to explain what was achieved, what feedback you got, and what you intend to do in response to all of that.

There is another way - you could do a 2 day plenary, have a celebrity speaker and limit interactivity to a supply of notepaper and pencils on every table. But I'll wager you don't end up with passionate delegates who don't just understand your message, but have an opinion on it too.

Follow these five tips and you'll end up with a hugely powerful tool for engagement. You'll be surprised at the upswing in trust, interest and buy-in from the people you're trying to communicate with. In terms of return on investment, it's the only way to go.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Practice makes it easy peasy

In a final acceptance that zero exercise probably isn't good for me, I went to my first ever Zumba class yesterday. Other than teaching me the merengue, this amazing class had a few other timely reminders in store:

1. Advocacy is worth everything. I would have completely ignored this worldwide phenomenon if it hadn't been advocated to me by 2 people who's opinion I was interested in. After they had mentioned it though I suddenly started seeing Zumba everywhere, when it had been invisible to me before.

2. People are much more likely to do something more than once if it's fun and accessible. Even the most beneficial activity will be ignored if it's dull or hard to get to. To engage people you have to remove the barriers to them getting involved.

3. The more you practice doing something, the less effort it takes. As an ex dancer I used to be uber-fit, but as I've spent more and more time behind a laptop, that fitness has dropped away and I'm going to have to work to get it back again. The class started with a very energetic merengue, which was completely new to me and continued with a high tempo columbian dance I'd never done before. It was brilliant and I loved it but it was utterly exhausting - after 20 minutes I was starting to see spots.

Then something interesting happened, after a quick towel and water break, we did a cha cha. Now cha cha is still high tempo, lively, demanding... but it just so happens that I studied it (among other dances) for about 12 years. I know the moves, I know the technique, I know how to move efficiently and take bits of time from here and add them on there to make it all look slick. And what d'you know, suddenly it was easy. Quite literally no sweat. Not only was my body on autopilot but my mind was free to think about other stuff (like business parallels, I'm such a geek).

It reminded me that anything that you want to come easily, has to be practised. If you want to looks slick in a pitch or perform at your peak during an economic crisis, then you have to be practising the behaviours you value ALL the time. The reason some people 'make it look easy' is because they've practised the behaviour in, they know the technique, they understand what works. If it looks easy, that's because it IS easy - but only after a lot of hard work.

Anyway, I can't be smug about the cha cha - I spent the rest of the class flailing to keep up. I've got quite a bit of work to do before I can Zumba with ease.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The 25th Hour

The 25th Hour is a brilliant nationwide campaign which aims to use the motivational power of the 2012 Olympic Games in London to inspire a surge in volunteers to help communities around the UK.

The idea is to tap into existing enthusiasm around 2012, to inspire people to find a little extra time in their day to give to their local communities. A recent DCMS survey found that a massive 48% of young people would volunteer their time for a 'London 2012 inspired activity'. You have to be suspicious that they're all imagining themselves hosting the green room for the Opening Ceremony - but even so, the will is there.

Wisely, The 25th Hour pairs emotional incentives with tangible rewards for outstanding contributions of time. The star prize being a give away of 2,012 pairs of tickets (not all to one person you understand) for the dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony. A genuine once in a lifetime opportunity and arguably even more exciting than the opening itself...

I think this is a really lovely idea and immediately engaging in it's accessibility. The concept that just one hour could make a difference is immediately appealing to anyone with the tiniest desire to 'give something back'.

It also makes me wonder, are there lessons here for employers hoping to engage their employees enough to deserve their 'discretionary effort'? Their 9th Hour. I think so:

- An emotional call to action. There's a reason to do more.

- Inspiringly manageable. An overwhelming task can cause apathy.

- Tangible rewards. Appreciation will be shown for a genuinely amazing contribution.

Therein (I hope) lies the key to success for The 25th Hour and the unexpected legacy of London 2012. Visit to give your 25th Hour.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Engaging for Success

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has commissioned a report on the importance of employee engagement in helping Britain out deep, dark recession.

This accessible and well-written report provides compelling evidence that employee engagement is the key factor for companies to consider when it comes to productivity, performance and innovation. As the country feels it's way towards economic recovery, the Secretary of State claims that there has "never been a more important time to think about employee engagement in Britain".

It' a long old document but it has some amazing case studies, and for those of you after facts and figures - fill your boots. Have a read of Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance Through Employee Engagement.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Innovation Beehive interview with Kursty Groves

Michael O Keefe over at Innovation Beehive has just done an interview with Kursty Groves, author of, 'I Wish I Worked There'. There are some great insights, but it's this one that really catches my eye is this:

“The first thing is that management have to use the creative space. If they role model behaviour, then others in the organisation will follow. Also, it has to be firmly on brand – the bouncy balls will only work at Google- they don’t fit the culture of a bank. You can’t just copy what is in one creative company and expect it to work the same in another”

This for me, is the key for anyone trying to build a strong culture. However a brand is being expressed, it's values need to be inherent in the end result. Looking at inspirational work places is a great exercise, as long it's used as the springboard to a unique solution.

Read the whole interview here.