Experiment, please

Two people building metaphorical models in Lego

In year 2000 I stumbled upon David Gauntlett’s exploration of creative methods applied to sociology and media studies. Gauntlett is currently a Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Westminster. Back then he was teaching at Leeds University in Northern England.

I was instantly captured by his inspiring attitude to mixing a variety of research methodologies, even when they did not seem ‘proper’ or sufficiently academic. As long as it strengthened the research process and his objective of connecting better with the people being studied, he seemed to be fairly open to basically applying anything to improve the understanding of a phenomenon, context or human interaction.

Be bold

It took me several years to realise that this kind of ‘mix it and then just do it’ actually takes some guts to carry out. Since year 2000 I have worked in public and private sector in Norway. My impression is that generally speaking, there is little degree of acceptance to experimenting with status quo in the majority of the organisations I have come across. I believe lots of human capital (or people’s motivational drives at work, if you like) goes to waste due to this.

I don’t get it.

Sharing with a purpose

I composed my first post on this blog in March 2008.  That first post was titled Visualise your problem and people will get your point. It was based upon a YouTube video by Gauntlett. I was thrilled by his practice of sharing good stuff online. I was surprised that few people understood the enormous potential of going online, co-producing or making your thoughts available to others.

During almost eight years after having finalised my MA degree in the UK in year 2000 I had barely come across people like Gauntlett within the sectors I had been part of. People generally seemed sceptic or anxious to share anything online that was not a properly finished product. That drove me crazy. So I started writing my own blog in order to see if I was capable of producing content over a certain amount of time and grow.

It is up to others to decide if I have managed to produce anything of joy, depth or relevance. Nonetheless, I’m sticking to people like David Gauntlett who provides me with enlightening input on how to let go of control and start experimenting in everyday life, both at work and at home.

Design thinking

In 2011 I joined a design company in Oslo, Norway: Halogen. It is a design company populated mainly by designers and a mix of other people like myself. I am trained within social anthropology, sociology, and strategic HR. I was drawn towards Halogen because the company enjoy solving problems, making things work, inspiring customers, and delivering relevant and smooth services and products to our customers’ end users.

Normally that is not a straight forward thing to do. Still, after having joined forces with designers I have found a better context for experimenting. Designers experiment by default. In particular I enjoy the following philosophy:

  • lots of different eyes: engage different people’s views on a problem
  • look at the service or product from the customer’s point of view (they are your best witnesses)
  • think with your hands: make something quickly – a model, drawing, photo, etc. Simply something tangible to represent your idea.

These bullet points are stolen with pride from IDEO, another design company. The Economist has explained the IDEO method more in detail. They call it design thinking. Gauntlett calls his way of working for ‘creative explorations’.

I believe they are both right as long as they enable others to talk about themselves, move forward and create impact, pride, and development.

The end

I’m writing every now and then at the corporate blog of my current employer Halogen: Kjøkkenfesten. Experimentation to be continued. Thanks for now.

Experiment, please

Train consultancy skills

Harajuku Cowboys

Sharing knowledge and training internal consultancy skills

Below is a half-day workshop design I prepared for a management training a couple of years ago. I believe it still works. I found it useful when there was a need for both training people in acting as internal consultants as well as providing problem owners, those sharing a business challenge, with some useful input.

Workshop purpose

  1. Enable people to get help dealing with a specific business challenge they are currently facing
  2. Increase participants’ insight across units
  3. Build corporate pride

Participants’ profile

Participants can be experts, managers or regular employees. For instance, if you design a training for managers, politics will become an aspect more important to manage. If running the workshop for regular employees, make sure to have dead specific tasks written down on handouts.

Time needed

Three hours for a group of 20-40 persons. It’s flexible, of course. However, squeezing it below two hours will make participants frustrated due to time constraint. In addition, there’ll be a danger of ruining the group dynamics.

Workshop design

1. Articulate a problem statement [two weeks prior to the workshop]

Invite a selection of the participants (for instance half of the group) to articulate a specific business problem they are currently facing in their daily work. The statement should be brief, ideally a one sentence ‘elevator pitch’ understandable to everyone (avoid internal jargon).

Some ideas for topics:

  • how to manage communication related to an upcoming downsizing process
  • identify new revenue streams within division’s strategy
  • cut costs in a way that makes sense to employees
  • how to become more efficient in day to day business within xx unit

What is important is that those you invite to articulate a ‘problem statement’ should be motivated for sharing their challenge. Thus, consider who you ask. Depending what your additional objectives for the training are (build team spirit, make some junior managers visible, enable women managers to take the stage, etc), you can make a selection that makes sense in the group as a whole.

2. Organise participants into problem owners vs consultants [in the workshop]

Sort participants into smaller teams of, say, three problem owners and three consultants. Allow each problem owner to present their challenge to the group in 5 min.

When all three problem owners have presented, ask the three consultants to reflect upon the three pitches. Which one do they want to go for. They can only choose one problem.

The two ‘left over’ problem owners joins the group.

The group (of roughly six persons) spends the next 60-90 minutes discussing the problem decided upon.

3. Problem cracking, caramba!

Each group works on the problem chosen in 60-90 minutes, depending on the complexity of it.
Make sure to dedicate one person per group who is charge of documenting the work (flip charts or similar tools). Unless something is decided during the group work, this person will at least have to present a synopsis of what took place in the group when all partcipants come together in plenary by the end of the workshop.

4. Plenary sharing

When groups return to plenary after having worked on their group task, it is time for sharing some reflections, both on the challenges decided upon, as well as the consultants’ input.

Please note that the result, advice or specific outcome of the session is not necessarily the most valuable aspect of the group work. Do make sure to challenge the groups on other things, such as work process. For instance how did they cooperate, listen, decide, discuss and prioritise?

An ethical note in the end: Make sure to remind participants in the end that information shared may be sensitive. Thus, show respect and be cautious about sharing if so is necessary.

———————————————–

Advice for the facilitator: Make a role description for ‘internal consultants’

It’s vital that consultants understand their role when they enter into position of internal consultant. Please provide internal consultants with an A4 sheet describing their role, beneficial attitudes, as well as what to avoid. For instance:

  • The internal consultants are supposed to help the problem owner to open up the problem, not solve it. In the end it is the problem owner who will need to do the hard work.
  • Challenge the problem owner to frame (and reframe) the problem in simple terms
  • Take the problem owner’s point of view: what would you do in his or her position?
  • Avoid rushing for conclusions. There’s no speed competition to complete first.
  • Be aware that feedback can be interpreted differently from person to person. Frame your input in a specific and constructive manner. Be respectful.
Train consultancy skills

Influential uncertainty

Demonstrate uncertainty and structure brainstorming

Two pieces of insight struck me this week:

  • a fresh take on sometimes being open about your uncertainty
  • make brainsteering, not brainstorming sessions

Dare to be uncertain

A podcast by Harvard Business Review this week puzzled me: Experts are more persuasive when they’re less certain. Zakary Tormala, a Stanford professor in marketing, explained how his team had researched the power of experts expressing uncertainty in certain contexts. It was an eyeopening experience.

Tormala claims that experts can engage their listeners by expressing uncertainty rather than the ‘I know it all’ attitude. The research had demonstrated that people being exposed to experts opening up for pondering and hesitation actually paid more attention, became more engaged and trusted the expert more. Why? Because they were not expecting an expert to do so. They were surprised, the different attitude represented a fresh contrast to conventional behaviour.

Brainsteering is focused brainstorming, not ranting

I must confess that I have initiated my share of brainstorming sessions that did not materialise into more than endless post-it notes on a wall or a flip chart ending up in the bin afterwards. Apologies.

Therefore I was delighted to come across McKinsey Quarterly’s post on brainsteering: Seven steps to better brainstorming. The main point in the article is that simply by posing more focused questions a huge improvement in the output quality is likely to happen.

Instead of cheering a team into brainstorming by enthusiastically claiming ‘anything goes!’ or ‘the more questions, the better!’, rather make it easy: Strip it down to a few sharp and well articulated questions. Then make small teams work on one question (yep, that is one as in ‘1’) for 30 minutes. That’ll get some real and valuable output from a team’s work on a question.

For a more detailed how-to-do-it description, follow the steps in the article linked above.

Photo: Cop Call / Originally uploaded by antonkawasaki

Influential uncertainty

Great tool for challenging status quo

Volkswagen demonstrates how to think outside the box

An acquaintance of mine was asked to challenge the management of a classical orchestra on how they could attract new audience. That challenge made me think of Volkswagen’s initiaive ‘The Fun Theory’. The company has produced a fresh and eye opening experiment on how to make people change behaviour.

My experience is that people stuck in a corner normally will not appreciate a quick solution to their problem. They want help to think out of the box. Since they are often better equiped to tackle their issues than their helpers are, providing a hand in order to change focus can free up lots of great perspectives.

The woman gave her speech, showed the Volkswagen video and asked the listeners to reflect upon how they could apply the wisdom to their own problem. It worked.

Great tool for challenging status quo

Intranets should be task oriented

Terry McGovern

Intranets must help people do what they have already decided to do

Gerry McGovern helps organisations design value-driven intranets. That is, making corporate intranets create satisfaction and added value for employees, companies and their clients rather than pain and frustration. I’ve picked a few of his views on wise intranet design and management shared in a talk he gave in Oslo recently.

Intranets should be task oriented

  1. Organise the intranet according to tasks, not the organisational chart
  2. Allign to the users’ mental models

First, what does it mean to have a “task based organisation of the intranet”? McGovern claims that companies tend to copy the organisational chart when designing intranets. Instead he suggests to put oneself in the shoes of the employee. Employees entering the intranet would normally go there for a reason. He or she is likely to be looking for how to go about with a problem. A well designed intranet helps the employee find that solution quickly.

Most wanted functionality in an intranet (sample)

Thus, identify what are the most crucial tasks for employees in a company to solve. The yellow table below is an example from one of the companies McGovern has helped redesign their intranet. The list shows a set of tasks prioritised order from top (most important) to bottom (less important). This list was made by asking lots of people in the given organisation what kind of tasks they needed to solve in order to get their work done. Then the design, titles and elements of the intranet reflected those needs.

Second, alligning to users’ mental models is essential. McGovern provides an example of another company he has helped: TetraPak, a Swedish company producing milk cartons and containers for drinks and more. TetraPak adjusted the phrasing of their intranet’s menu. That enabled employees to find what they were looking for much faster. Within a few months, the company had reduced their telephone support staff from four down to two persons. There weren’t that many frustrated calls anymore. Suddenly employees started finding what they were looking for.

Test whether the intranet actually helps you complete your work

McGovern emphasises the need for testing the user value of an intranet. Does it deliver what it promises? Does it enable people to find what they are looking for? Does it help the company to cut time wasting or expenses? In order to answer these questions it is necessary to ask the users. One way of doing this can be to create tasks that are typical examples of needs that employees report. This is where the yellow table above becomes valuable. After having identified the users’ needs, now is the time to test if the design of its intranet actually answers those needs.

Observing users performing a given set of tasks will indicate whether people can do what they wanted to do with ease. If they can’t, then it is off to improve the design or phrasing. Because designing and developing intranets should be based on measuring facts, not someone’s opinions.

– The essence of the web is to help people do what they have already decided to do. The same goes for intranets, McGovern says. The purpose of any intranet should enable people in a company to get their work done more efficiently, by wasting less time looking for the information they need to get a task done and making the client happier.

———————————————

I wrote this text after having listened to McGovern in a session aimed at intranet managers the 28th of January 2010. The talk was organised by NetLife Research, a user experience consultancy firm based in Oslo, Norway.

Check out McGovern’s web site or follow him on Twitter.

Intranets should be task oriented

Embed collaborative culture: recruit t-shaped people

Recruit T-shaped people in to order create a collaborative, organisational culture.

Morten Hansen, a lecturer at INSEAD business school in France, has written a wonderful book on how to transform collaboration as a buzzword into real, corporate value. He claims loads of interesting things in his recent book ‘Collaboration: how leaders avoid the traps, create unity, and reap big results’ (2009). In his book he offers a couple of really interesting suggestions on how to ensure collaborative culture is embedded in a corporate culture:1.

1. Recruit T-shaped people

When searching for colleagues or leaders for your organisation, look for people who have demonstrated asking other people for help to solve a problem. He mentions Roy’s Restaurants in California and Hawaii where the interviewer may ask the candidate to describe ‘what obstacles have you faced in a previous job that prevente you from doing a quality job? How di you overcome these obstacles?’ In many companies the interviewer would be satisfied with a response showing that the candidate managed to take care of the situation and solve it all by herself. However, for Roy’s Restaurants, that kind of answer would likely indicate that this person possibly is someone who do not ask for assistance when in trouble and communicated the situation to colleagues. Asking for help indicates a collaborative orientation, Roy’s Restaurants would claim.

2. Give the assignment centre a twist

Hansen brings up another example on how to recruit t-shaped people. The example is from Southwestern Airlines, a hugely successful airline company in the U.S. In this company the interviewer in an assignment centre context would ask applicants to spend a some minutes preparing a statement about themeselves that they are supposed to present in front of the group. Job applicants may think that they are being tested for their oral and communication skills. However, what they are really being tested on is their listening skills. Is the applicant listening actively and supporting the others when they are making their statements? Od to they mostly look into their papers, concentrating on their own statement? In case the candidate doesn’t manage to listen provide the other with attention and feedback, this would indicate low degree of collaborative orientation.

 

 

Embed collaborative culture: recruit t-shaped people