Connecting for Innovation

Recently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced that, from June, working at home will not be permitted. The official memo states: “communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. … Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

Predictably, the Yahoo news led to a storm of comment, mostly negative. The gist of these comments is that individuals can be more productive and efficient if they can work undisturbed at home. It saves commuting time (and the environment, by taking cars off the road) and modern communications technology can more than compensate for decreased face-to-face contact.

Lessons from the Past
From the 1920’s until the late l970’s, Bell Laboratories, a subsidiary of AT&T, was arguably the most innovative centre for new ideas in the world. Transistors, lasers, digital communication, solar power cells, mobile telephony and many other things we take for granted today originated in Bell Labs. How did that organisation work?

Jon Gertner has written an enlightening window into that world: The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. Central for Bell Labs was the notion that “the group – especially the interdisciplinary group – was better than the lone scientist or small team.” A leading scientist of that day wrote: “We would meet together to discuss important steps almost on the spur of the moment … we would discuss things freely. I think many of us had ideas in these discussion groups, one person’s remarks suggesting an idea to another.”

“Social and professional exchanges moved back and forth, in all directions. … Formal talks and informal chats were always encouraged, both as a matter of policy and by the inventive design of the building.” A building redesign is also what Mayer has pushed through for Yahoo. Within Bell Labs the position was, “People had to be near one another. Phone calls alone wouldn’t do.” According to a former senior Bell Labs executive, an institution seeking greatness in research and development needs a place where a “critical mass” of people can exchange all kinds of information and consult with one another. Creative environments that foster a rich exchange of ideas are a key to success.

The present
In many organisations, working from home is increasingly a fact, and for some people a privilege. That works well where the alternative is that individuals waste time on lengthy commutes, only to spend their days closeted in offices or cubicles doing independent work. Virtual teams are also a fact of life: individuals spread across countries and continents have to work on the same project and simply cannot meet face to face often, if at all.

However, when innovation is crucial, it is doubtful whether this works. Then people need to interact, to connect, to learn to trust each other, and to influence each other’s thinking. For this purpose, email, teleconferences and Skype are simply not as effective as face-to-face encounters and exchanges.

The Bell Labs environment led to the invention and development of much of what now make instant global communications possible. It is ironic that this has resulted in working environments that are much less conducive to innovation and creativity.

Sliding the empathy scale

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. This ability (in contrast to simply listening to others, or hearing them out) lays the foundation for making connections with others, and being able to influence them effectively.

Differences and conflicts occur on a regular basis in most normal workplaces. In order to deal with those it is of critical importance that we be able to experience how a situation looks and feels from the other person’s perspective. This enables us to work together to meet the needs of both parties and to forge strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect.

Is a high level of empathy always a good thing? No, probably not. In business, we will wish to understand how major decisions will have a possible negative impact on others. However, sharing all potential negative feelings can lead to paralysis when tough, unsentimental decisions are required. ‘Empathy’ is good – on a sliding scale. A CEO who is seen as heartless will not earn the ‘engagement’ of his or her people. He or she must, however, be able to make tough decisions, for example by slashing headcount.

If I visit a doctor I hope he or she will understand my condition and then be able to diagnose the problem and offer relief. I will also expect a certain measure of sympathy from the doctors and nurses I encounter. It makes me feel seen as a person, not just as a ‘case’.
But I do not expect him or her to share in all my pain and misery. Sharing in the misery of all their patients would make life unbearable. Caregivers must protect themselves against ‘empathy fatigue’, also known as ‘secondary posttraumatic stress disorder’.

Returning to colleagues and clients: our observation is that there is not enough empathy in the workplace, people will feel a lack of understanding and respect in the face of normal differences.

The link below will take you to a 10-minute animation around this theme. It deals primarily with a need for greater empathy at the level of human relationships in general, the social level. But nothing stops you starting small, with a little smile or a really meant ‘I’m sorry for you’.

Time for a chat?

In the course of a recent Focus on Influence programme for a high-tech organisation, one of the participants (a project manager) remarked how much he was enjoying it to be able to have some really good conversations with his colleagues. “Now that I think about it,” he continued, “we really never have time for conversations at work.” “Well, what happens during project team meetings, consultations and performance reviews?” I asked. “They occur regularly, but consist mainly of checking off and adding to action lists. Really thinking together about what we’re doing and why is not something we do. And one-on-ones with colleagues we don’t go beyond removing obstacles and solving problems.”

A female colleague continued: “Conversations with my manager are basically one-way; I get to hear that I should be delivering results even more quickly. In China they work 14 hours a day, so why don’t I work longer hours if necessary? I feel as if I’m a machine. I spend 90% of my time behind a computer screen. I’m never asked for my thoughts about how we’re doing things.” Just to be clear: she is an academically trained and highly motivated professional of Chinese background.

It is now 15 years since I worked in large organisation myself. During that time I developed many of my current approaches to training programmes on  conversational and interpersonal skills, including Focus on Influence. But perhaps the times have caught up with them.

Back then there was also great pressure on results, but there was always time between everything else for (sometimes lengthy) discussions. Discussions, which, I believe, were very important for building relationships and creating an inspiring climate. The participants’ comments set me to thinking, is there, in this day and age, still time for sense-making conversation in organisations? I put this question to a wise and experienced former colleague.

“Erik, when you worked for the company, early in the nineties, it was still a collegial, industrial organisation, with an integrated chain from Research & Development through to Sales. When a new CEO appeared changes were introduced. From that moment on Anglo-Saxon shareholder value, quarterly results and outsourcing became the focus. In my view, discussions since then have had, as their main goal, covering one’s ass and surviving.”

Maybe the statements of several participants, under high pressure at work, and the controversial ones of the former colleague, do not form an accurate barometer of the ‘conversational climate’ in today’s organisations. Nevertheless, I think it is important to check out the truth-value of their assertions. If it is indeed the case that there is no time to conduct, in a fundamental discussion, an exploration of basic understandings, or to examine the underlying necessity of stated targets, then interpersonal skills programmes of several days are of little relevance. Why equip people with skills, which they will rarely be able or permitted to use?

In order to gain a better understanding of the day-to-day realities I will  approach several former participants with the request to send to me a diary log of a random day, with a brief explanation of the content and approach taken during any conversations which occurred. I hope they will find the time to do so.
Erik Boers

Season’s Greetings!

Lian and anitilopeThe festive season is almost upon us again. We therefore run down our lists of people to whom we must send greeting cards. It is part of the tradition.

But has it not also become a ‘ritual’, lacking in real meaning? If we care about those to whom we send our greetings, why is it that so often a whole 12 months has gone by since the last greeting?

Cards received are dutifully displayed on the mantle or taped onto our walls. If the sender of a received greeting has not already been sent one by us, we sometimes make amends, with a card in the next post. Or is the truth that we do not care that much, but send cards or other forms of message to those distant relations or friends out of a sense of ‘duty’.

Should the festive season not be a period when we do take more time? We could call those who matter to engage in a real conversation, enquiring about their well being, and taking the time to listen to their responses. We could visit them, where geographical separation permits. We could take the time to show other people that they matter to us.

‘But there is so little time during the hectic festive season!’ Of course, there is always a lack of time. However, if we value special others, surely we can make the time. For if we can’t, one may ask: are they really that special? If not, why even bother to send all those cards with their pre-printed messages, quickly signed during an evening, without thought but from a sense of duty?

If you are really in the ‘festive spirit’, try and connect with others. Tell them what you value about them. What could be a better ‘present’ than that? Ask how life has treated them, and listen with unfeigned interest.

The photograph above captures a bit of the ‘spirit’ I’m trying to convey. Be kind to loved ones, and to strangers as well. Make, or renew, some connections!

Happy Holidays!


A Royal Dialogue

I, as do all my Learning Consortium colleagues, seek to help people connect with each other through genuine conversation: speaking fearlessly, and listening attentively and with respect. I recently had an experience that showed once more that this is so very necessary and eminently possible, even when the individuals involved come from all strata of society, or business.

Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands joined a dialogue group in a village in the southern part of The Netherlands. She had heard, from the Queen’s representative in the province of Brabant, about the stimulating discussions which had been conducted there around the tensions created locally by the massive livestock farms and sheds.

There we sat rather stiffly with the Queen at our table, and with the Queen’s representative and with her lady-in-waiting and her chamberlain. The ice was broken swiftly, however. When I said that it was out custom to open discussions by reading a poem she spontaneously asked whose poem it was.

The members of the group (citizens, farmers and local community officials) had prepared themselves well with a number of questions which I had sent to them, but I offered the Queen the opportunity to ask her questions and express her wishes concerning the discussion first. She had many questions! And they were good questions, because she had studied the reports of previous discussions well. A spontaneous discussion followed. I did not have to do more than ensure that each of the different groups of stakeholders could speak freely. Nobody attacked anyone else. Everyone spoke in a civilised manner, with a pronounced local accent. The Queen exhibited a strong personal involvement with the lives of the citizens in this agricultural community.

Protocol dictated that the Queen would indicate when the discussion had to be ended. But after 45 minutes, 15 minutes later than planned, I had to signal that we really had to close things down.

We all saw her again later during a reception in the town hall. Once again, she took the opportunity to engage the group in discussion. It was heart-warming to see how the ten stood, shoulder to shoulder, in a circle around the Queen and continued their exchange of views in a very open manner.
Erik Boers

Why did you do that?

Many of us have been confronted with that question at some point, maybe even recently. The question often leads to some confusion. Sometimes we can’t think of an immediate answer. However, generally we think of something plausible and offer an explanation of sorts, and then in the form that can best be called a rationalisation. An honest answer would often be: “I don’t know!”

Neuroscience and psychological research suggest a fascinating if sometimes troubling alternative: we do not (consciously) know why we do or say certain things, or make certain decisions. Decisions to do or say things are created in the subconscious mind, to which we have no direct access. In other words, no matter how self-aware we may think we are and no matter how skilled we are in interpersonal behavioural skills we sometimes say and do things, which are hurtful or puzzling to others. How often have you thought to yourself, “I don’t know what got into me?” or “I was beside myself”?

Who is the “me” that something got into? Who or what is the “self” that I was beside? Recent research has not offered a quick answer, but it raises interesting questions.

In one apparently simple experiment, a subject was placed in a brain scanner and told to press one of two buttons, one of which he held in his left hand and the other in his right hand. He just had to make the decision and immediately push whichever button he liked. Surprise: the person watching the brain scan knew a full six seconds before a button was pushed which one it was going to be! So who or what ‘decided’?

There are a number of good books about neuroscience, like David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. BBC’s ‘Horizon’ programme has run several fascinating documentaries, available on YouTube, like “What makes us good or evil?” The field may be a scary one to get into, but it can lead to a better understanding of what we like to call our ‘self’, and a more compassionate understanding and acceptance of others – and their sometimes strange behaviour. The ‘buttons’ that we sometimes push, or get pushed, are deeply buried.
Nico Swaan

Connecting Through Dialogue

I recently facilitated a dialogue between Q fever patients and goat keepers. It was a rewarding and also an extremely emotional session.

The lives of many Q fever patients had been devastated because they had the misfortune of contracting a serious illness while walking or cycling past a goat farm. But the lives of the goat keepers had also taken a dramatic turn. Though they had taken all the measures required by government agencies, their goats had fallen ill, and had infected innocent passers-by. In many cases the farmers had been required to destroy half their goats.

In spite of the charged atmosphere and the strong emotions on both sides, a splendid discussion developed.

During the preparation, and following a series of interviews with both sides, I selected two cases in which either a patient or a farmer had found him- or herself placed in a difficult situation. The patient was, with difficulty, able to work only two or three hours a day. When he prepared to go home at the end of his few hours at work, his colleagues sneered at him, remarking with some sarcasm at the fact that he could go home to sit in the garden while they had to continue working. The goat keeper had recently organised a third meeting with worried neighbours in her own living room. During that meeting the mayor and a representative of health services had confirmed that the farmer had done everything by the book. Nevertheless, as the meeting broke up, a visitor bitterly accused the farmer of gross negligence.

In the course of the dialogue I invited the parties to put themselves in the other’s position. What would they feel, think and do in such a circumstance? This resulted in an extremely moving discussion which was experienced by all as very healing. ‘Healing’ because of the new awareness of, and acknowledgement of the other ‘side’. There was a sense of being heard and understood, and a ‘connection’ was established between all the individuals, from both sides. ‘Healing’ also because the dialogue permitted all those present to connect quietly, and at the same time intensely, with their own feelings.

Listening carefully, empathizing with the ‘other side’ and sharing deeply felt feelings resulted in ‘connections’ where these had previously been impossible.
Erik Boers

Why connecting pays off

Making personal connections with colleagues is a necessity if you wish to influence them in a positive manner; hence also the title of our book, “Making Connections”. There is an additional reason however, as discussed in an article by Phyllis Korkki in the New York Times. Research has shown that there are a great many lonely people in organisations. This carries with it a great cost to both the individuals concerned, and the organisations in which they work.
Connecting to lonely people

People or procedures

If you attempt to control people through all kinds of administrative procedures, employees will probably develop the feeling that you mistrust them. If you mistrust people, they will definitely not deliver more than the required minimum. This means that you will never get more than you demand of people, as described in so-called SMART goals. These goals will at best get you what fits within the vision of the people writing the procedures and regulations. Chances are that you will not even get that.

Some managers may then feel the urge to raise the bar, by setting higher goals, and insisting on even tighter regulations. This easily turns into a spiraling process, ending in mistrust and lack of productivity.

But sometimes something else happens. A colleague of mine, an external consultant, recently had to book a flight to deliver a training and development programme for a client. By accident, she discovered that the client’s internal travel agency could access much cheaper seats than she could find. However, according to regulations, she, being an external consultant, had to book herself and then declare her costs.

So, she picked up the phone and explained the story to the client’s account manager. The account manager in turn called someone she trusted who knew someone in the internal travel department. To cut a long story short: when 4 people that trusted each other took action and made 3 phone calls to bypass some regulations, it took only 15 minutes to save the company a relatively large sum of money.

This would not have happened, if these people had blindly followed procedure, or if the necessary trust between them had lacked. Luckily all people involved had begun to trust each other a long time before this incident, which is what happens when you engage in face-to-face contact and telephone conversations.

The question is, were the people involved right in bypassing the existing procedures? Do you set and follow tight regulations? Or do you engage in dialogue and build trust in order to get even better results?
Jac Rongen, Nico Swaan & Geof Cox