Looking For Penguin Eggs

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I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Even in this age of knowledge workers, work is still done by people for people. The same messy, complicated, contradictory, contrary and confusing people I was referring to in a previous post. It seems that, even in these enlightened times when we can talk about love, happiness and freedom at work without being laughed out of the room, senior leaders in businesses of all types are still paralysed by fear of the intangible value in the people that keep organisations afloat. Fear means hiding behind craftily worded employee satisfaction survey questions. Fear means chasing your tail trying to predict how various demographics are going to change or be changed by the workplace. Fear means the annual upheaval of predictable box-ticking performance reviews. Fear means trying to put people in neat boxes. Fear means hierarchy and command and control structures; job titles; labelling; taxonomy.

Here is a link to an excellent little blogpost by Niki Rosenbaum of Treacle Tiger. Take a read. Oh, don’t worry, I’ll wait till you get back…

…there, that was good wasn’t it?

I wasn’t surprised by Niki’s findings either. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of unscientific exercises of this nature. So, I had a go myself. Guess what? Yup. Same result.

Now, you might say that this is stating the bleeding obvious. And it is obvious. However, it doesn’t come with a Gallup or Ipsos MORI logo and hasn’t got a % after it. Or a control group. Or a myriad other things that you rely on if fear gets in the way.

The Leesman Index holds the largest contemporary collection of workplace effectiveness benchmark data in Europe. The Leesman ‘Lmi’ is their benchmark performance satisfaction and effectiveness score. Graded from 0-100 it is an indicator of the ability of a workplace to support the activities of the employees it accommodates. People in workplace management take a great deal of interest in what this valuable data can tell them about how they can improve the places in which work gets done. I have a huge amount of admiration for what Tim Oldman and his team have achieved. So, I asked Tim if he had a % value for the number of people citing great people as a factor in workplace effectiveness. Unfortunately, as they are concerned solely with the relationship between people and the built environment they don’t collect such data. So I can’t corroborate the findings from the informal surveys Niki and I undertook with an independent and respected source.

Here are a couple of equally unscientific case studies:

Case Study 1 – I once stayed in a very expensive, beautifully designed hotel, filled with the very latest gadgets and brimming with cutting edge furniture and fittings. It should have been a once in a lifetime experience. The five rooms along the corridor from mine were being used by a boisterous, vomitous, obnoxious stag party. I couldn’t wait to leave. No amount of thoughtful design could compensate for the people I was sharing the space with.

Case Study 2 – I once took a part-time job in the post room of a financial services business in a shabby tower block off the A3 in Surrey. It was small, poorly air-conditioned, dirty and noisy. The three people I worked with were simply brilliant. I minded not one jot the surroundings. My colleagues made the experience. 5 years later I was Head of Operations.

You can probably think of a number of similar examples yourself. Has your business got into restrictive policy-making mode over social media? Unsurprising really, when you consider it is tribal and relational not transactional. Fear again.

So how must we confront our fears and the fearful as leaders and as those who speak with leaders? Well, for me it’s about acknowledging our fear and using it as a catalyst for exploration of new and better ways of going about the world of work. And it has to start and end with people if the businesses we are building are not to end up as two vast and trunkless legs of stone stood in the desert.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard perhaps said it best (and certainly better than I could ever put it) as follows:

“And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”

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