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5 characteristics of successful organisations

I tried recently to count the number of organisations of which I’ve been part over the years. I attempted to list everything from junior football teams through to my current employers. I began to lose count.

We’re part of many organisations in both our working and personal lives. I began to wonder how many of the organisations to which I’ve belonged would be considered successful. This then led me to consider what I meant by ‘success’…

What follows is a list of five characteristics I believe to be common to every successful organisation.

By ‘successful’ I mean demonstrably achieved what the organisation was set up to do. For a swimming club that’s teaching people to swim, being successful in galas, and training-up lifeguards. For schools it’s not only achieving good value-added but striking an achievable work-life balance for staff and preparing young people for the wider world.

Each of the following is additive: an organisation needs to get the first one sorted before moving onto the next. Skipping straight to 5 is a waste of time if 1-4 aren’t in place!

1. Story

Every successful organisation needs a story. Often this is the mission statement based on the founders’ wishes. An independent school often has a strong story and a proud history which is often reflected both in the events calendar and positions within the staff and student body. A business that sells a product might have a story on how the company was founded or the ‘lightbulb moment’ – such as the Dyson story that’s printed on the side of all Dyson vacuum cleaner boxes.

The story not only lends the organisation legitimacy, but gives its members a common shared interest and direction in which to point. It sets the parameters, the tone. Sometimes the story is summed up in the organisation’s slogan, such as Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ and Nike’s ‘Just Do It’.

More than anything, the story tells the world why the organisation exists. And that’s an important thing to communicate, especially in these testing times.

2. Call to action

Every organisation needs a story, a mission, a raison d’être. But it also needs a call to action – a reason why people should care – or, perhaps more importantly, a reason why people should join in.

A church, for example, is unlikely to get new members by providing bland, inoffensive services that allow people to forget the main messages soon afterwards. Public bodies such as the National Health Service need to not only go through the motions to improve the nation’s health but capture the public’s imagination and give them a reason to change their habits.

The call to action is difficult, especially if it requires demonstrable change in lifestyle or belief system. And, of course, the most successful organisations are the ones that maximise (and capitalise) upon these changes.

3. Growth mindsets

It’s fully possible to have a successful organisation without charismatic leaders. But I’ve yet to come across a successful organisation without leaders who have growth mindsets. Carol Dweck’s work has revolutionised not only my approach to education and business, but interactions with my son:

According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence. Others, who believe their success is based on hard work and learning, are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence… Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved. Dweck argues that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life. (Wikipedia)

I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people with growth mindsets most of the time – at home, at work and online. However, I was recently in a position where I was surrounded by people with fixed mindsets. It was soul-destroying. 🙁

Seek out a growth mindset for yourself and foster it in others for your organisation to be successful and to flourish!

4. Commitment

Once the story, call to action and charismatic leader are in place, commitment should be a fairly easy win for an organisation. Give staff a reason to work their socks off and give all they can to the organisation and the organisation will reap dividends.

The example often cited is Google. Having recently been to their London headquarters I saw some of what has been written in action. I saw happy, motivated staff working past 9pm on a weekday night, the legendary free food, micro-kitchens and off-the-wall accessories. I didn’t ‘see’ the 20% time that Google staff are given to work on their own projects, but it’s a well-known fact that many of their most innovative offerings were borne from this.

As a leader, I’d much rather have one person giving 100% than two people giving 50%. Not only because it’s cheaper, but it creates a palpable ‘buzz’ around the place. It energises other people. Create a culture of commitment and people not only thrive but flourish.

5. Workflows

You can have the story sorted, a call to action prepared, the leaders with growth mindsets in place, and committed staff, but still fail to have a successful organisation. Why? Friction.

Friction occurs where there are bottlenecks, frustrations and indecisiveness. These almost always are the result of poor workflows. A workflow is merely a way of doing something. I can remember one school at which I work, a high-achieving specialist school. I remember being surprised at the number of flow charts in the staff room, up on the walls in classrooms and reproduced in the staff handbook. At first, this felt quite constraining. “Is this the only way we’re allowed to do things around here?”, I thought.

But then it dawned on me that effective workflows freed up people in that school to be creative, to focus on more important things, such as learning, their life outside school and adding value to the lives of young people. In other words, it allowed staff to achieve the mission of the school and be part of a successful organisation.

Workflows are crucial to the running of any organisation. At our most recent planning meeting, we mapped our current and future workflows. It was an interesting and enlightening experience. I can honestly say we’re becoming more efficient, more aware and, yes, more successful as a result.

Conclusion

The above constitutes my overview of what I believe organisations – both educational and otherwise – need to work on to become successful. I’d be very interested to hear whether you agree. What would you add? What would you remove? What would you change? 🙂

Image CC BY Taro Taylor

Leadership by Design.

It is perhaps a statement of the obvious, but worth emphasizing, that the forms or structures of the immediate world we inhabit are overwhelmingly the outcome of human design. They are not inevitable or immutable and are open to examination and discussion. (p.5)

I’m reading John Heskett’s excellent Design: A Very Short Introduction at the moment. As regular readers will know, I’m very interested in infographics and visualizations; with a background in Philosophy and History I’m also interested in design at a more fundamental and basic level.

As with all well-explained and written books, the author ruminates on things that range across various disciplines. From the opening quotation, Heskett continues:

Whether executed well or badly (on whatever basis this is judged,) designs are not determined by technological processes, social structures, or economic systems, or any other objective source. They result from the decisions and choices of human beings. (p.5)

There’s actually some leadership lessons in there, with more throughout the book. For example, Heskett explains how the French initially became renowned for design:

In the early seventeenth century, the French monarchy used privileged status and luxurious facilities to attract the finest craftsmen to Paris in order to establish international dominance in the production and trade of luxury goods. Laws were introduced to promote exports and restrict imports. (p.16, my emphasis)

Heskett later explains how it’s difficult to be innovative and creative in large organizations because of the levels of bureaucracy involved:

Tacit, subjective approaches may be appropriate for small-scale products… In contrast with large-scale products involving complex questions of technology and the organization of interactions on many levels, personal intuition is unlikely to be capable of handling all necessary aspects. In such projects, rational, structured methodologies can ensure the full dimensions of projects are understood as a platform for creative solutions on the level of detailed execution.

Heskett gives the example of the well-known (and expensive) Aeron chair by Herman Miller. This not only involves creative flair, but technical and ergonomic research and synthesis beyond the level of the individual.

I’ve not finished Design: A Very Short Introduction yet, but (as with the others in the series) at £5 it’s an absolute steal. To summarize, the 3 leadership lessons I’ve learned from it already:

  1. Almost everything is the product of deliberate human interaction, thought and planning.
  2. Rewarding and/or legislating for behaviours and outputs you want is a fast track to success.
  3. Bureaucracy is a necessary evil in large organizations – but you can use it to your advantage through agile processes and effective project management.

I’ll post again when I’ve finished if there’s anything else that strikes me. Recommended! 😀

Colin Day on leadership.

Colin Day

Colin Day is Group Chief Financial Officer and Director of Reckitt Benckiser, ‘a global force in household, health and personal care.’ He has worked for a number of organizations, including British Gas (when it was the ‘Gas Corporation’) from which he draws experiences and lessons in leadership.

The following is what I learned from watching his seven videos on the 50 Lessons website:

Most people like being led

Day believes that most people want to be led and that very few want to lead themselves. This is mainly due to the necessity of making tough decisions as a leader.

Love/hate reactions

Leaders need to movtiave staff and inspire them, otherwise organizations can end up with dissatisfied staff. Inspiring a love/hate dichotomy regarding leadership style within an organization is not necessarily a bad thing.

Good leadership comes from confidence

Leaders need to be preapred to make decisions and lead by example. You need to be seen to be technically competent, which can be demonstrated through motivation, enthusiasm and commitment. Allied to this, however, has to be confidence. If staff see that you have their best interests at heart, that you will not let them down and that you will support them, then they will follow your lead.

‘Open door’ policy

It can be quite an intimidating experience to go an see your boss, which is why an open door policy always some fears. Leaders should be available day or night and tell staff that ‘there’s no excuse for not contacting me.’ People need to be put at ease by not treating them as if they’re slaves to you or in any way second-class citizens. Leaders need to be open with people – which is difficult to do consistently and honestly all the time.

Don’t judge books by their covers

It’s easy and part of human nature to rush into perceptions of people or organizations. Forming judgements from other people’s opinions and the media is easy to do. Leaders need to find out for themselves and be open-minded. Find out the facts so you can form an educated opinion. Ask relevant questions when recruiting and allow them to do due dilgence on you. Day provides prospective employees with a list of people whom they can talk to about his leadership style and what to expect if they work under him.

Autocracy is a necessity

Organizations and the people within them have to accept a certain measure of ‘autocratic’ style as it gets results. Consensus management doesn’t work, according to Day: someone needs to ‘call the shots’ as otherwise nothing gets done. The only leadership style that really works is one where you give very clear direction about what you want and then clear messages about how that should be achieved.

According to Day, it’s all about focus. If you say something and stick to it enough you will find people take onboard what you say. As a leader, you need to make sure that everyone shares your focus. Don’t lead initiatives until the last minute – plan well in advance and provide clear direction from the top so that ‘everyone marches to the same tune.’

Detail

Leaders need to know how much detail is required in various situations and how much to demand of their workforce. Analysis and statistics is not important if the bigger picture is being ignored. In Day’s experience, people hide behind detail for confidence purposes, producing endless charts tables to try and make a simple point.

As a leader, demand people focus on the larger issue. Use instinct and experience as much as data. Make documents short and to the point; they should be 4-5 pages long or take 4-5 minutes to present. If a point cannot be made in that amount of space or time then there’s something wrong.

No ‘job for life’

There are no ‘jobs for life’ any more: don’t encourage staff to think in that way. Instead, encourage them to talk about their career options, taking them out of their comfort zone, preparing them to take  risks and look outside of the organization. Career-seekers are more motivated than ‘company’ people. Those who stay in one job for a long time stagnate.

Self-confidence

It’s not enough for leaders to be intellectually brilliant or extremely technically competent. You also have to have the confidence to pull things off even when wrong-footed. Confidence also needs to be built and nurtured in your staff as well. Give them responsibilities to deliver on important projects. They will feel like they are part of the decision-making process even if not making the final decision.

Confidence can only be grown, not ‘taught’. Day talks of a ‘rock of granite’ within people that others can chip away at but will nevertheless remain solid. Look for this ‘rock’ when hiring people.

PS You can get access to the 50 Lessons website through the National College for School Leadership’s Leadership Library

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