Reflections on the arc of life

I recently came across an interesting article in The Atlantic in which the author summarises research which shows for many professionals their work peak is ten to twenty years before they retire. The article goes on:

“A few years ago, I saw a cartoon of a man on his deathbed saying, “I wish I’d bought more crap.” It has always amazed me that many wealthy people keep working to increase their wealth, amassing far more money than they could possibly spend or even usefully bequeath. One day I asked a wealthy friend why this is so. Many people who have gotten rich know how to measure their self-worth only in pecuniary terms, he explained, so they stay on the hamster wheel, year after year. They believe that at some point, they will finally accumulate enough to feel truly successful, happy, and therefore ready to die. This is a mistake, and not a benign one. Most Eastern philosophy warns that focusing on acquisition leads to attachment and vanity, which derail the search for happiness by obscuring one’s essential nature.”

Many people carry on trying to do the same thing and find themselves enjoying it less and less. The author learned that Hindu teaching suggests that there are four stages in life and that the third, Vanaprastha, usually starts around the age of fifty and occurs when people move from focusing on their external responsibilities (passing these on to the next generation) and rewards to focusing more inwards on spirituality, service and wisdom. Literally, Vanaprastha means retreating to the forest.

One of the challenges for society is that whilst this typical arc of life continues, life expectancy grows and as suggested by Gratton & Scott in their book The 100 year life, there is a need to plan for this process more effectively than ever before.

The author of The Atlantic article was prompted to make his own four part plan – jump, worship, serve and connect. He planned to make a start (jump) before the inevitable decline or plateauing occurred, to increase his spiritual life, help others and reinforce his relationships.

How we  manage this transition is down to each of us individually and our own priorities but it is important to think about it consciously not just sticking to doing the same old things with diminishing returns. None of this means that we can’t go on achieving things but as the author Wendy Doniger observed “how beautiful it is when you still doing things but they don’t matter the way they did when you were in the thick of things… when you were growing up and trying to figure out who you were and what you want to accomplish in life and all of that”

Reflections on a life of simplicity and curiosity

A post in which I reflect on recent articles, blog posts, books etc that have interested me, loosely gathered around a theme. Mainly intended for exploring my own thinking rather than proposing a definitive viewpoint. Some might say they are my thoughts in Beta.

I have read a number of pieces recently in which the idea of leading a simple life (not back to the woods like Thoreau’s Walden but not full of unnecessary consumption and luxury) combined with curious interest in ideas, people and places is very fulfilling for the writers.

For example, on considering what he needs (not wants from life), Kieran Macrae identified the following:

“Not the bare necessity of what I need to survive but somewhere between that and a life of luxury and excess, just what I need to be comfortable and happy. And it turns out it’s not that much, once I’ve got some good food to cook, a fun project to work on, some interesting books to read, friends and family to hang out with and a house to do it all in I’m pretty much set. Everything else above that is luxury.”

From <>

Similarly, in a recent Tweet, a (early-) retired person endeavoured to explain what it feels like to be retired:

“The best I could come up with was it’s like college with no assignments or exams. You get to pursue topics and interests at your leisure. And money.”

For him, the idea of being able to follow one’s one interests and explore them at leisure with no money pressures is clearly appealing.

In the Science Fiction Novel, The Quantum Magician one of the characters after recently leaving an academic-type environment to join the ‘real world’  argues with her colleague who left many years before:

“Everyone’s life outside the Garret is so empty,” she said. “Nothing is true out here, Bel. Nothing has enduring value. They’re struggling for who’s in charge and who has the most money when questions of how the cosmos works are all around them, unanswered. It’s been only a little while and I’m itching inside. How did you survive twelve years without going crazy?”

“I didn’t know if I could survive away from the Garret. The wide world is intellectually cold. A void. So I traded the study of one complex system for another. I replaced scientific and mathematical stimulation with the intellectual challenge of human behavior and confidence schemes.”

“That keeps you going?” she asked doubtfully.

“Behavioral questions are astonishingly multivariate.”

“But they’re not real! They don’t matter! The answers change from person to person”

From The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken

Here we have two people with a common background in abstract thought, one who finds the outside world to be empty and without enduring value, and the other who is stimulated by the complexity of human behaviour.

The answer for me lies in the very last sentence of this excerpt – the answer changes from person to person. It is very easy to be sucked into the social norms of what is trendy, or even what people say constitutes a good life. Montaigne suggested that what is accepted as normal varies from culture to culture and is socially defined not necessarily from first principles, hence it is OK not to conform. Epicurus believed that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness and that this depends on freedom, thought and friends – all else is unnecessary.

In Consolations of philosophy, Alain de Botton suggests that “a virtuous, ordinary life striving for wisdom but never far from folly is achievement enough”.

Is ‘be happy ‘ and ‘do no harm’ enough?

Solution focused social science

A recent article by Duncan Watts in Nature prompted me to structure some thoughts that I had about the challenges in creating and predicting changes in society.

Watts, a physicist by initial training but now a sociologist, asks whether social science should be more solution oriented. As I found recently when attempting to build a simulation model of the diffusion of low energy/carbon innovations, there are many different social science theories that could be applied to how people influence each other and make decisions about whether to adopt a new innovation or not. My intention had been to build on existing approaches but the two primary models used in the simulation literature for representing how influence occurs both failed the face value test of sufficiently describing how influence occurs by missing out key features*. Watts goes further and argues that the two primary conceptual models discussed in the social science literature for understanding innovation diffusion make incompatible assumptions and so cannot both be right. And yet, both continue to be used in research studies.

During the recent Brexit debate in the UK, a leading politician declared that we have had enough of experts telling us what to think because they are usually wrong. He was particularly referring to economists at this point but the bald criticism of all experts was somewhat concerning. We do though know through Tetlock’s work that those ‘experts’ that appear on TV are only marginally better (if at all) than a random prediction. But again, these are mainly economics and politics experts rather than, say, physics or medical experts. The challenge as Watts describes it is that in social science (including economics and psychology), there are many different theories for how any particular aspect of social or economic behaviour occurs and experts usually have their own preference. By contrast, in the physical sciences there is usually broad agreement about the majority of issues particularly those that have been studies for sometime.

Being a mathematician by training I found (and continue to find) it strange that, despite the difficulty, social scientists think that it is OK that they don’t have a clear view on many social issues – and don’t appear to strive to obtain one. There are challenges of course; unlike physical sciences, it is difficult to carry out controlled trials and hard to evaluate the effect of specific social or economic interventions since other factors cannot be held constant and the timescale for social change can be long. Human beings are not as predictable as atoms and the economy and society are complex systems in which effects may be non-linear and emergent but in the real world it is not helpful to have a wide range of competing theories to choose from. Tony Greenham at the RSA argues that economics is not like dentistry (see John Maynard Keynes) and it is impossible to have just a single view of how the economy works rather that it is useful to allow a dialogue between the different approaches to occur. Policy makers may with good reason feel confused about the right approach to take to achieve social change because they have to take action. Ultimately, dialogue has to converge to a decision as to which action to take.

Consequently, Watts argues that some of the social science effort which currently goes into trying to further build theories of how specific aspects of how a social system works would be more usefully focused on solving specific real world issues. I recall sitting in a meeting at a research institute that was trying to decide its research priorities and doodling a 2×2 matrix (I am a management consultant by trade after all!). The two axes were whether the project took the academic field further and whether the work would be immediately applicable. I only discovered sometime later that Donald Stokes got there some 20 years before me in his book Pasteur’s Quadrant. Pasteur’s quadrant is the cell in the 2×2 matrix which both contributes to the academic field AND is also practically useful. This is where Watts’ article suggests more social science effort should be focused though it also discusses the challenges in finding and executing work that fits this brief showing that the shift is not trivial.

In the absence of greater consensus on key issues in the social sciences, I think that Watts’ suggestion of shifting more effort into focusing on specific solutions is a good way forward. And surely better than just refining or adding to the multitude of partial theories which already exist.

Watts makes the arguments much more clearly than I can here and so I encourage you to read his paper.

*Some modellers might argue here that the models have been fitted to real world data and so they have been validated. However, given the number of parameters in each model it is possible to fit both to historic data and so both would appear to be good models. This does not help though when you then want to use the model to assess interventions into the system since you do not really know the underlying mechanism and hence the effect of different interventions.

Do HR Analytics have to be predictive

Some comments on the recent paper from IES on HR Analytics:

I read this new paper which explores some of the subtleties in HR Analytics in a helpful and pragmatic way. I particularly liked the list of example questions that HR Analytics can help with which shows the breadth of opportunity available as well as the challenge for HR people to step into this space.

I did though want to comment on the early part of the paper which seeks to define what “HR Analytics” is. The paper seeks to differentiates it from other uses of HR and other data by saying that to qualify as HR Analytics it must be predictive analytics. I think this is too constraining as it excludes both some useful, advanced analytics and also what many analysts actually spend most of their time doing. This is not to say that prediction is not a good destination to aim for but that analytics does not have to be predictive to count as HR Analytics.

So what is lost if we stick to using the predictive analytics distinction? Exploratory analytics to increase understanding of a situation would be excluded with this apporach; for example, network analysis to understand who communicates with who is advanced analytics but is not predictive. Hypothesis testing to compare two different approaches doesn’t use predictive techniques in the usual sense of the phrase but is a valid aspect of HR Analytics. Prediction may be the end point (in many but not all situations) but using advanced analysis and visualisation techniques to understand a problem area can add a lot of value particularly when used collaboratively with business users. Often prediction may be the long term goal in a problem domain but the current data can only add some insight rather than being predictive; indeed the initial analysis may lead to the need for further data collection or to testing new initiatives before prediction becomes possible. All of these are valid parts of the HR Analytics portfolio. If these advanced but non-predictive approaches are excluded from HR Analytics (as is suggested) but are beyond reporting, we then need to come with a new term to cover these types of analysis! The LV presentation at the IES event last year has an Advanced Analytics stage before Predictive which I think is reasonable and it should be included in the HR Analytics field.

The paper also hints that data manipulation and management is not part of HR Analytics but whilst (predictive) analysis is the interesting bit for the business, the reality is that analysts will spend a lot of time (60-80% in some estimates) cleaning and massaging the data first (particularly when combining sources) and so this inevitably features in many discussions of what HR Analytics is. And it is actually very important since models are more often made better by intelligent and creative use of data (through cleaning and combining data for example) than using clever(er) analytical techniques.

The most important factor in defining HR Analytics is really that it is using and analysing data to solve business problems rather than the technical approaches involved. And since this is driven by the business issues, what is actually done and how it is done will vary from one organisation to another. We should start with the business problem first and decide what the best approach to tackle this is rather than deciding that we must use predictive analytics and applying this to all problems.

Versatility and strengths

A recent Fast Company article argues that versatility not increasing use of specialisation is the way to get ahead in organisations. The ability to turn your hand to different tasks at short notice is becoming ever more important in an era with lean organisations and fast change. And the importance of this has increased significantly in just the last year. The article also refers to the recent book The Neo-generalist which I discussed recently.

In practice, Employers have always valued those that are flexible rather than just sticking to what is in their job description (whilst continuing to select and reward those that have specialist skills). The point is really that people now need to be more versatile but the question is whether they should be totally flexible and turn their hands to anything at all, or whether there are effective ways to be versatile.

We know from research that when people are using their strengths they are more engaged and productive so we need to be careful in moving them too far away from their strengths. However, it is important to recognise that strengths are not technical skills or domain knowledge but broader characteristics such as relationship building, strategic thinking, resilience and decisiveness. Strengths are things that you are both good at but also energise you, and you also want to learn more about and become better at; whereas non-strengths can be de-energising and you have little intrinsic interest in improving. Someone who doesn’t have a relationship building strength may be able to do it for a short time but after a while it is likely to become debilitating. The most effective way then to be versatile is to identify what your strengths are and then look for how to apply these to new situations and tasks, rather than trying to deploy weaknesses or non-strengths.

You can identify your strengths using one of the profiling tools on the market such as Strengthsfinder (buy Marcus Buckingham’s book ‘Now discover your strengths’ or Tom Rath’s Strengthsfinder 2.0 and use the code in the back to access the tool), Strengthscope or Realise2 (the last two require a licensed practitioner to administer but will give you more insight than the free version of Strengthsfinder accessible via the books). Or, you can ask yourself questions like:

  • What things do you do so well that you are very successful just about every time you do them?
  • What activities do you naturally look forward to? What is it about these that is attractive?
  • What do you find yourself wanting to learn even more about or learning very easily?
  • When do you feel in your element? What is naturally you?
You can then use this insight to think about how you can offer more value to your employer or clients. I use the I-DANCED model to help coaching clients think about using their strengths:

Identify your key strengths

Deploy your strengths to achieve goals by consciously considering how they can be used effectively, choosing when to use then and turning them up and down appropriately

void overplaying them so they don’t turn into weaknesses.

Find New things to use your strengths on by thinking about how else you can be adding value.

Work with people with Complementary strengths because sometimes you can’t do everything yourself.

ducate others about your strengths so that they know when to ask you for your help to do new things.

Develop your strengths further so that rather than accepting you are already good at them, you become outstanding.

The Fast Company article suggests that versatility is the way to get ahead but it is important to think about the best way to do this. Focusing on what you have to achieve and the value you can add whilst effectively building on and deploying your strengths allows you to be versatile whilst staying energised and engaged with the work on a long term basis. It may, of course, need you to learn new technical skills or domain knowledge as you do this but that really is just part of the modern world where existing skills and knowledge can date very quickly.

The Neo-generalist: Reflections on a new book

I recently finished reading Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin’s excellent new book, The Neo-generalist, which I was alerted to by Harold Jarche’s blog. I found the book a really useful contribution to the traditional dichotomy between specialism and generalism which led me to consider some further questions about what it means for neo-generalists themselves but also for how they add value to others.

I was naturally drawn to the book as I have always struggled with the prevailing specialism culture and found it hard in this context to articulate the mix of skills and experience I can bring to my clients, and how this has changed over time. (Over twenty years ago a colleague called me multi-faceted, a description which I still love but it does make it difficult to help others understand what I can do.) In a world which increasingly focuses on specialists, I have often used (and shared) the idea of being T-shaped to demonstrate the added value that I can bring but it is usually the specialist aspects that potential clients or employers focus on. There is no doubt that deep specialism is needed for some roles (though to my mind always with the addition of the broad understanding which a T-shaped person brings), but is there also a role for the neo-generalist? This is a person that Mikkelsen & Martin suggest switches between generalism and specialism as necessary, and will often have a number of areas of deeper expertise or experience to draw on. In her book, The Shift, Lynda Gratton argues that serial mastery is required as people need to adapt to the changing requirements from work but her focus is very much that specialisation is key (though in a more recent blog article she indicates that she is re-visiting the starkness of this to some degree). Neo-generalism seeks to make this a more fluid concept by allowing people to operate as specialists or generalists as the context dictates. What The Neo-generalist doesn’t suggest is that you can just be a generalist with a superficial level of knowledge in many areas; there has to be some depth too.  However, the authors do remind us that the admonition “A jack of all trades is a master of none” also has a second part in the original: “but oftentimes better than a master of one.”. In full “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”  One question then is how deep does a neo-generalist need to go when being a specialist. Perhaps the answer is ‘just deep enough’ but then how do you communicate your ability to do this to others?

Some people have a personal preferences and interest in exploring different fields, understanding their interaction and how these might be applied. Finding things that we enjoy and are good at is an important part of fulfilment at work, so this is clearly important. It has been interesting to see the types of people that have commented on the book on social media and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they (we) tend to see them(our)selves as neo-generalists. There is clearly a sense that it is good to see other people out there with some similar characteristics but also with similar challenges; the book can help to validate or legitimise the path that neo-generalists take whilst also providing a helpful structure for thinking about how to communicate a neo-generalists’ skills and value.

Over the last ten years or so I have used a strengths-focused approach to helping individuals and teams be more successful. Here, strengths are not just things that we are good at but that also energise us. The Gallup research on the use of strengths continues to show that people who use their strengths are more engaged and productive. Strengths are things like strategic thinking, relationship building, resilience and decisiveness (from the Strengthscope tool) rather than technical skills or domain knowledge. It strikes me that the characteristics that are described for neo-generalists are more strengths-like than they are skills or knowledge, and as such energise us. (It is worth noting  that one of the things that I talk with coaching clients about is the risk of strengths going into overdrive, ie being used too much or in the wrong situations, and that managing this is a key aspect of being effective.)

A meaningful life though also involves delivering a positive contribution and adding value somewhere, somehow. Most of us also need to find a way to translate what we can do and enjoy into some means of generating income and hence we need to demonstrate the value that we can add to others. This can be difficult as we don’t fit in any, or just one, of the traditional boxes. In a world where social media is pervasive it is more difficult than ever to communicate how a neo-generalist adds value since it is no longer as easy to tailor the communication to a target audience; everyone can see the same message. One of the arguments for neo-generalists is that the complex issues that we face in the world today require people who can take a broad perspective to understand the inter-relatedness of different aspects and hence identify and implement more integrated solutions. In part of course this is what is known as a systems thinker and it is clear that people with this capability can often throw new light onto issues. Neo-generalists can bring novel ideas from the different disciplines and fields that they have worked in, often linking ideas together in unusual ways. It can also be valuable for an organisation to be able to turn to a single trusted advisor who understand their specific situation for help with different problems. Individual clients will often only see our behaviours that we demonstrate with them whilst we might have a much broader range of capabilities below the surface. My experience suggests that not all clients value the breadth of capabilities that a neo-generalist can bring (often wanting deep specialisation in their very well defined area) but when you find those that do, you can build a long and productive relationship which can easily cross boundaries.

The book illustrates the concepts of neo-generalism through a series of case study interviews which are very interesting for seeing how people with diverse backgrounds have been successful. (These have prompted me to attempt to write my own (much less exotic) story which hopefully I will share soon!) However, as Ilkka Kakko identifies in his blog, these people with multi-cultural, multi-educational, multi-career backgrounds seem almost like super-humans. Couple this with the final paragraph of the book which says that the interviewees are “filled with an entrepreneurial spirit, effortless leadership qualities, an ability to guide and mentor, and an innate never-sated thirst for knowledge”, one has to wonder whether ordinary humans can be neo-generalists or it is the preserve of a super few. Is there a role for neo-generalists in the main body of the workforce?

A recent article in Forbes pointed to a 2015 PWC survey of more than a thousand CEOs which cited curiosity as a critical leadership trait necessary to navigating challenging times. One CEO even noted that business leaders who “are always expanding their perspective and what they know—and have that natural curiosity—are the people that are going to be successful”. I suspect that the leadership and entrepreneurial skills mentioned above were also on the list. Future skills 2020 from the Institute for the Future (2011) identified 10 skills that would be needed by everyone in 2020. They include trans-disciplinarity, sense making, cross-cultural competence, and novel and adaptive thinking; very much neo-generalist skills. If everyone is to be like that in (now) just four years and the need for continual learning and re-skilling is well recognised, then what is left for neo-generalists? What is it that really makes neo-generalists different from those that succeed in more traditional ways. How can we help others understand this?

This raises some interesting questions for the future workforce and its development. First, how many neo-generalists are needed – are they just a very small proportion of people who can add their wisdom to situations with others then getting on and implementing within their own specialisms. Second and related, does it work better to have neo-generalists that can work like this, or are better solutions arrived at by helping specialists collaborate more effectively. And third, is it a role best suited to those outside a system? Or, perhaps a more generative set of questions would be ‘in what situations would neo-generalists be most useful and how should they be engaged with?’ It is beholden on neo-generalists to answer these questions since the majority of people still live in a specialist/generalist world. Or, do we have to create our own organisation (or ecosystem) from within which to add value to customers as some of those interviewed in the book did?

The Neo-Generalist is an excellent addition to the specialism/generalism debate and it has been good to see so much positive feedback for it. It includes many more subtle and sophisticated ideas than I have been able to address here. which others have addressed. However, as most comments are from neo-generalists, we should be careful that we don’t end up in some form of echo chamber where the same views continue to be reinforced without some alternative perspectives. It would be interesting to get the views of more non-neo-generalists such leaders in large organisations on where/whether they see the role of the neo-generalist.

Clearly, being a neo-generalist is unlikely to be the easy road to travel, but if the value that we add can be clearly articulated (and it is our responsibility to make it easy for others to understand us) then it can be a fulfilling role which may fit well with our strengths, beliefs and values.

Mathematician as Organisational Effectiveness consultant

As I resume working as an independent consultant helping organisations become more effective, I was reflecting on my background and training as a mathematician and how this helps me and my clients.

When people think about maths they almost always think about numbers. And yes, it is really useful to be able to manipulate and analyse data well. Indeed, in modern organisations it is increasingly an essential skill not just to be able to look at data but to do your own analysis on it, to search for your own solutions. As an OE consultant it is critical to be able to gather and analyse data (sometimes in quite sophisticated ways) to ensure that you are making the right diagnosis of the business issues. Having a natural affinity for numbers and the tools to analyse them is a real bonus. What we do when we analyse data is look for patterns that help us understand what is happening in the real world. At its heart much of what mathematicians all over the world do is pattern finding, searching through data to find the nuggets of insight.

Maths is also about the ability to build models to explain and predict. As a mathematician I am always looking to understand which factors really matter (whether it be in numbers or not), how they relate to each other and what happens as a result. My brain seems to automatically build these interlinked representations (or models) of what is happening in any situation very rapidly. In complex modern organisations, this is essential as we need to understand how changing one thing might affect others, and also make sure that all the changes we are making are aligned with each other and not pulling in different directions (a more common occurrence than one might hope).

The ideas of complexity science such as adaptation, emergence, and agent based modelling have a lot to offer here. Complexity science was initially developed at the Santa Fe Institute where a group or researchers came together in recognition that academia had become too siloed and that the real problems in the world needed a cross-disciplinary approach to solving them. We still see this silo effect when organisations are trying to improve their situation – everyone (HR, IT, marketing etc etc) has their own solution that they know think will make the difference but very few people are able to really consider the whole system (both within and outside the organisation) and how the parts of it affect each other. This is how mathematicians think naturally.

Maths is also a language. It is used by all the other sciences (physical and social) to define their problems in a rigorous way. Mathematicians have to have the ability to understand different situations and people, and to translate what they are saying into a clear definition of the problem and then find the appropriate tools to solve it. They also then need to be able to translate their solutions back into the language of the people who had the initial problem. This is so critical in business situations – people from different functions talk their own language and whilst they are in the same room talking to each other they often really have no idea what everyone else is really saying. As mathematicians we have to help with this translation and be precise about what is being said otherwise the wrong problem will be solved.

Finally, using maths also requires you to consider not just the numbers but also how people process data, how they think about it and how they make decisions as result. This leads you to consider the process of decision making in organisations and how to help people make better decisions. The rapidly expanding cognitive and decision science fields have much to offer the OE practitioner here.

I reflect then that the four main abilities that being a mathematician allows me to bring to my role as an OE consultant are being naturally comfortable and capable with numbers and statistics, the ability to create mental maps or models of situations which reflect the interrelated nature of different factors or levers, the skill of a linguist to translate between people speaking different (business) languages, and the ability to step back and think about how other people are thinking (and feeling).

Of course, to use a mathematical term, these are necessary but not sufficient skills for being a good OE consultant (years of experience helps as does my NLP training and coaching skills). However, I believe that they are necessary and am pleased to have them.

Delivering solutions not selling tools

There is always a risk when people are specialists in a particular discipline that the solution to any presenting problem is whatever they are expert in. So, for example, L&D people might always think that the answer is some sort of learning intervention (or worse still, always think that it is a training course). This is like the tradesman coming to fix a problem in our house and only bringing a hammer with him. External consultants with their proprietary solutions and specialisms can be a bit like this, but so can internal specialists.

The reality meanwhile is that any business situation is a complex interplay of people, their capabilities, structures, processes (and systems) and organisational culture all set within a context of the business strategy and external environment. The most important part of improving performance is understanding the problem and what changes, interventions, approaches etc. will lead to an effective solution. The focus needs to be on what any intervention achieves rather than the activity itself

For example, I have been working in partnership with four client organisations of various sizes and sectors to help them move through a period of challenging change. If this was described in traditional HR discipline terms, we could say that it includes workforce planning, structure and job design, job evaluation and pay design, coaching, new models of service delivery etc. etc. But actually, all the work with these clients is much more integrated than that. It is about working with them so that they can respond to the changing external environment (increasing customer demands, reduced funding and so on) in a way which allows them to survive and thrive.

I have helped these clients make decisions about what are the right solutions for their situation and then worked with them to identify the best route to implementation and how to manage the change. Often, this is the client doing things for themselves with my support and challenge. Sometimes, I will carry out specific tasks in the programme (such as designing jobs or run a coaching programme) or it may be about finding a third party who can deliver a specific solution (such as an assessment centre). But whatever the specific interventions, these clients value someone working alongside them so that the solutions remain integrated and focused on improving Organisational Effectiveness. 

High Performance and fulfilling work

I regularly wonder how we can get the best out of people so that they perform as well as they can and so that they enjoy coming to work – and how easy it is for organisations and managers to get it wrong.

I spend much of my time working with people to help them identify their unique set of strengths, how they can best deploy these and how to develop them. It is so clear that when people start talking about their strengths and how they use them, their energy level rises up several notches. Yet when I ask teams of people how many of them can strongly agree with the statement that they ‘have the opportunity to use what they are good at every day’ (from the Gallup Employee Engagement questionnaire) only about one in five put their hands up. You have to wonder what people spend their time doing – clearly things that they are not good at. Why would anyone design an organisation or jobs which cause this to happen? Couple this with the evidence from organisations like Gallup1 and the Corporate Leadership Council that helping people play to their strengths can lead to improvements of the order of 30% then it seems this should be a real focus for organisations in job design and managers in coaching their staff.

This doesn’t mean just letting people do what they want to. A well-designed strengths-based organisation is very outcome focused, with people being held to account for their outcomes. The difference is that they work out how to achieve what they need to using their own unique set of strengths rather than in some pre-determined way that either the organisation prescribes or the manager thinks is right (subject of course to fitting in with organisational values such as integrity).

Some people think that we don’t stretch people in this sort of environment, but actually people are stretched in a positive and energising way by developing their strengths as far as they can and by finding ways to use their strengths in new situations: mediocrity is not an option. It also doesn’t mean that people will spend all their time using their strengths (even the best organisations probably only get the proportion of time people use their strengths up to about 70%), there will always be ‘stuff’ that just needs doing. The point is to make a conscious effort to understand people’s strengths and help them use them more (whilst not overplaying them) and more effectively. What’s more, you don’t ignore weaknesses; it is OK to acknowledge that you can’t be great at everything. But, rather than the traditional model of trying to fix them, you find ways to manage them so that they don’t interfere with your success.

For those readers with an interest in sport, there was a fascinating interview in the Times2 before the recent England vs Australia Ashes series, by Mike Brearley (England captain during the famous 1981 Ashes series and now a highly regarded psychotherapist) with Andy Flower the current England coach. Flower describes how he helps the players identify what facets of their game make them outstanding and how they can build on these to make themselves world class, whilst also talking about allowable weaknesses and working on these just enough that they don’t stop them performing at high levels.

This approach fits well with Dan Pink’s views in his book Drive, about what motivates people, where he identifies three intrinsic factors – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose (I remember these with the acronym AMP, being a measure of power, or MAP as a guide for how to get there). Autonomy is about letting people be in charge of their own work and how they do it, and in a strengths world is about agreeing outcomes and letting people use their own strengths to get there in their own way. Mastery is becoming the best you can at what you do and developing strengths to become the best in the company or the sector at what you do, rather than saying ‘I am good at that so that is OK’ (just think how much effort musicians and sports people amongst others put into becoming the best). And Purpose is having a clear and motivating reason for doing what you do and fits with the Engage for Success idea of organisations providing a strong strategic narrative and allowing employees to have a voice.

With the recent coming together of knowledge about employee engagement, playing to strengths and the importance of intrinsic motivators, we probably know what is necessary to create opportunities for people to perform well and enjoy themselves at the same time. What is clear though is that these are not one-off initiatives; they need to be built into the way organisations operate and continually be focused on by managers and employees alike. It is easy in the helter-skelter world of organisational life to lose focus on them despite the evident benefits to both organisations and individuals.


  1. Harter, James K., Frank L. Schmidt, and Theodore L. Hayes. “Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: a meta-analysis.” Journal of applied psychology 87.2 (2002): 268.

Creating social networks for learning and sharing ideas

Organisations’ ability to adapt and to learn to operate in changing circumstances are critical capabilities. Learning continues to shift from being just thought of as formal, away from the office programmes, to an on-going process where learning is continuous and embedded in the workplace. Whilst it is tempting to think of new technology as offering the same content in a new delivery format, these can provide opportunities for people to learn at different times and in different situations than they did previously, accessing the material in a just-in-time basis. More fundamentally, recent advances in technology have helped people connect and collaborate more easily with a wider range of colleagues, and enabled them to seek out and find learning for themselves.

This paper discusses the potential for new technologies and social networking to facilitate new ways of learning. It presents key themes from recent research done for the NHS into establishing new social networks for knowledge and idea sharing, and also offers hints and tips for establishing a new online community.