Posts Tagged ‘Objectivity’

A flawed model of diversity?

Monday, September 5th, 2011

I went to the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans a couple of days ago to witness an NFL match. I have to say that I really don’t understand the pull of the NFL. There can surely be fewer slower sports – but I do accept that the Americans love it.

The Superdome itself is altogether more impressive. It is the largest fixed domed structure in the world and can seat 80,000 people. For those of you interested in detail, its steel frame covers 13 acres, and the dome itself is 273 feet high and has a diameter of 680 feet. In the past 6 years, $336m dollars has been spent on it – partly in post-Katrina repairs and partly in upgrading it.

The Superdrome came to prominence for many people back in August 2005 when it was designated as – and became – “a shelter of last resort” for local people when Hurricane Katrina ripped into New Orleans. 30,000 evacuees sought shelter there.

It turned out to be hardly a place of shelter. Part of the roof blew off exposing it to the elements. Furthermore, the plumbing system broke down and so people relieved themselves anywhere in the building, as a result of which the stench was revolting and the potential for disease immense. There were also reports of serious gang related crimes taking place within this supposed place of safety. It became the focal point for the very public and systemic failure of America’s response to the catastrophe.

At the time of the disaster, I was in in Orlando, Florida, around 500 miles from where all this was happening. I can recall watching the scenes unfold on a TV in a hotel lounge. I can also recall being shocked at the time at the complete lack of interest that the majority of Americans present had in it. They continued to tuck into their snacks and meals as if it was of no concern to them. Perhaps it wasn’t of any concern – and perhaps this was partly due to the fact that the people I was with were predominantly white people, and those affected were predominantly black people. As one of the TV commentators asked, “Is this really happening in  America?” I wondered what some of the other hotel guests were asking themselves.

When President Bush went to New Orleans a couple of weeks after Katrina, he made a speech addressing a number of issues. One issue was that of the racial divide. He said, “As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”

As I sat there in the Superdome, I tried to picture, feel, hear, smell, what it would have been like exactly 6 years ago that day.  It was futile as an exercise, although it did allow me to focus on how recent it was – and wonder whether it would ever happen again, knowing that Hurricane Lee was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico as we sat there.

My attention returned to the game, and all the associated activities. I had seen in the Programme that at half time there was going to be a performance by the ‘610 Stompers’. They were billed as a local group of men from professional backgrounds who excelled at innovative ‘moves’. When they duly arrived my son and I were not sure whether they were a serious or a comedy act – their ability to co-ordinate themselves made it difficult to tell.

I was more interested in the ethnic make-up of the group. Of the approximately 50 men performing on the pitch, every one of them appeared to be white. I could not see one black person in the group. I was surprised and somewhat taken aback. Why would the main New Orleans sports team – with so many black players and supporters – be associated with and sponsor a group made up of all white men?

Chatting to a local about other matters, I brought up the situation I had witnessed together with my surprise. I was interested in his thoughts. He didn’t see an issue with it. He described to me a model of diversity that wasn’t around integration, but was more around living within a racial group and living side by side with other racial groups – working with people from other groups but not necessarily socialising or living with people from those other groups. I asked if he thought that this was workable and whether it would remove the racial discrimination that Bush had recognised. He thought so. I am not convinced.

Is this a viable model? Can it work? Is it perhaps a model that can be argued as workable but one that will actually maintain the status quo?

I wonder if anyone else there had similar thoughts to mine? The New Orleans Saints were terrible and lost 32 – 7. Perhaps they were thinking about it and that’s what put them off – but I think not. But perhaps someone needs to think about it.


So tell me what you need, what you really, really need

Monday, April 25th, 2011

I’m all for the phrase “Make it happen”, but we always have to be clear on the ‘it’. Sometimes organisations are so keen to make ‘it’ happen, the priority can become “Make something happen” which can often be one step forward and two steps back. It can also damage relationships and cause waves in previously tranquil waters. And it can waste serious amounts of money.

The area of learning and development is one of the best – or worst, dependent upon how you look at it – examples of this.

I can think of several occasions where training interventions have been delivered and they have not delivered the required results in the workplace. In several of those instances the claim has been that it was “Training’s fault because they didn’t train the right things”. Hmmm. Perhaps it was, or perhaps it wasn’t. It is, however, relatively simple to introduce a process that minimises this potential and maximises the value from an organisation’s investment in learning. As with so many successful projects, the primary requirement is for the relevant people to take the required responsibility and accountability.

Learning and development professionals (the contractors) need to slow down the commissioning process. The commissioning process is the stage where the internal or external client identifies what needs to change. And this will only work if the responsibility is in the right place.

The client has to take responsibility for job descriptions, core skills and identifying individuals’ learning and development needs. The contractor’s role is to analyse the client’s needs and develop appropriate and cost-effective interventions, deliver the interventions, assess the competence of delegates and check the intervention met its stated objectives. Finally, we arrive at the evaluation of the changes in the workplace as a result of the intervention – which is the client’s responsibility.

The start of this cycle used to be called the Training Needs Analysis (TNA). However, it is increasing being broken down into two activities called the Performance Needs Analysis (PNA) and the Learning Needs Analysis (LNA). Whilst it is the responsibility of the client, the contractor needs to assist them in this process. When we are closely involved in matters, we often lose our objectivity and sometimes make assumptions – this is what can happen for a client and so we need to help them avoid this by taking them through a structure process.

This process can be as detailed as everyone wants to make it. Having said that, if learning and development professionals use too complex a process, they will lose credibility with the client. The complexity of the process should also be driven by the size of the audience – in other words, if 20 people need to improve their performance in a particular area, the process should be less arduous than if 2,000 people require it – but both require a process to ensure we make the right thing happen.

As a start, I use seven questions. These are:

  1. What is the identified performance need?
  2. Why is a solution required (how will it add value, and what would happen if it did not exist)?
  3. How will the solution improve the organisation’s performance against its identified goals?
  4. Which organisational competencies does the solution aim to address and to what level?
  5. What are the target staff groups /  teams / Departments for this solution?
  6. How will the effectiveness of the solution be measured in the workplace?
  7. What are the clearly stated, measurable objectives for the solution?

From experience, I know that these questions can come across as threatening to clients. This is particularly the case in immature organisations – in other words, organisations where discussions around learning and development activities are often packaged in terms of the client stating they want a course on a particular aspect, rather than rational, objective and meaningful discussions between the client and contractor on what they need to achieve together.  Consequently, my preferred approach is to let the client have the questions prior to us meeting face to face or us having a further phone conversation. This gives them the opportunity to identify what they need – what they really need.

When learning and development professionals get this process right, they are well on their way to making a meaningful impact for the organisation. They will be able to demonstrate their value in improving performance.

In my next post, I will explain a little more about each of these seven star questions – and why, when you have completed the process, you need to get your sponsor’s sign-off.  


Can you afford not to do this?

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Conflict in the workplace costs the UK economy dearly. Conflict outside the workplace generates huge amounts of wasted time and unhelpful emotions.

According to the Report Fight, Flight or Face It (OPP, 2008), “the average employee spends 2.1 hours a week dealing with conflict. For the UK alone, that translates to 370 million working days lost every year as a result of conflict in the workplace” (p.4).

The same report suggests that in the UK perhaps we conform to our international stereotype of bottling up our emotions. It found that 65% of UK employees “… admit to feeling anger or frustration in the face of conflict at work”, compared with 57% across the nine countries surveyed in the study (p.19). Furthermore, 30% of UK respondents reported that conflict has resulted in an absence from work – compared with 25% across all respondents.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey Report Leadership and the Management of Conflict at Work, (CIPD, 2008), found that 44% of the 660 HR respondents reported that they have to manage disputes at work “frequently or continually” (p.4). It also reports that 28% of the respondents “… admit to having left a job as a result of conflict at work” (p.7).

So why don’t we address it more often?

I think that there are three main reasons:

1)    We often worry about whether we can handle it effectively

2)    We have concerns about how the other person(s) will react.

3)    We’ve got more important things to do (at least, that’s what we tell ourselves).

Well, here’s a way to do it that helps out with points 1 and 2 (and if you needed convincing that it’s not an important issue, the statistics I mentioned earlier should have helped). It’s a model called CUDSA – and it gives a structure to discussions. And following a structure will reduce the chance of unhelpful emotions getting in the way.

Confront the behaviour – it may well be that the person is aware of what they are doing, however, it is often not the case. Where a person displays unhelpful behaviour on a regular basis, it is easy to make the assumption that they must know that they are causing conflict – but it would be wrong to do so. I have come across situations on several occasions where everyone has assumed (or perhaps hoped) that someone else has already given feedback and therefore not addressed it. Often the person appreciates being made aware of the issue.

Understand each other’s position – the most important stage. If this isn’t carried out thoroughly and openly, the remainder of the discussion and any solution will not last very long. There will almost certainly be new information as you discuss this – in situations of conflict we often make judgements about the other person that may well not be based on fact – this stage addresses such potentially devisive issues.

Define the problem – once you have all the information and fully understand each other’s position, you will be able to define the problem. This needs to be achieved objectively and succinctly. Write it down so you record it clearly.

Search for a solution – list all the possible solutions, even if they seem a bit off the wall. Some might initially not seem workable, but they might generate further ideas from the other person. The more you come up with, the more chance you have of arriving at a really effective one.

Agree a way forward – Having reached this far, and if you have carried out the previous stages thoroughly, this final stage should be relatively straight forward. You will have built up increased rapport with the other person and may well see them in a different, more positive, light. Be specific about your way forward – and if what you agree is going to impact on others, let them know what you are going to do – it will increase your likelihood of success. Finally, fix a date to meet again to see how it’s going – this will help ensure the buy-in of all concerned.

Have a go. You can make a huge impact on your business and on the effectiveness of individuals. And you will develop and improve your own skills!


Banking on objectivity

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

I’ve just had a request this morning from a bank in Cambodia for a copy of a Learning and Development Quality Management System. It reminded me of a recent encounter I had with a more local bank.

I recently discovered that a cheque I had paid into the Bank had not registered on the account. It had been a couple of weeks since I posted it through the bank’s letterbox and I was starting to wonder where it had got to. I had used the letterbox as the cash machine on the side of the building was not accepting deposits. I thought a visit to the Bank was in order.

I explained the circumstances to one of the staff and I answered all her questions. Yes, I was sure it was this Branch. Yes, I had used the correct account number. Yes, I had definitely delivered it. No, I didn’t have any other bank accounts with them that I could have put it into. Yes, it was definitely this Bank I had posted it at and not a different one.

A slightly awkward silence followed. “I’m sorry Mr Ackerley, I don’t know what has happened to your cheque, but we definitely haven’t got it”, was the comment that broke the silence. I felt my frustration levels rising. This was obviously the end of the road with this person. I asked to speak with a manager. “I don’t think a manager will be able to do any more than I have done”. I reiterated my desire to speak with a manager, and in due course one arrived. We revisited all the questions that I had answered with the first assistant – perhaps unsurprisingly, the answers were the same. And the conclusion was the same – “I’m sorry, I don’t know where your cheque can be”.

“Okay”, I said, “I say I posted it through your letterbox and you say you haven’t received it. Let’s go back to the last point I know where it was – your letterbox. Please can you check the letterbox to ensure it hasn’t got stuck anywhere”. I was assured that this couldn’t have happened as there was nowhere in the box for it to get stuck. I was insistent. The manager reluctantly agreed. About five minutes later the manager returned with a sheepish look on his face and a huge pile of mail. “I must apologise”, he sighed, “It looks like nobody has emptied it for about 3 weeks”. And, yes, my cheque was in there.

The interaction highlighted the value of focussing on the process rather than assumptions. If either of the staff members had focussed on the process – the route the cheque had taken – they would have approached the situation more objectively and looked in the letterbox, but they chose to focus on the assumption that the customer didn’t know what he was doing (sometimes the case, I will admit, but not on this occasion!).

Would you notice if you hadn’t received any post for three weeks? I would. It made me realise that in some sectors mail doesn’t have much of a role any longer. I remember as a child my dad stopping the car and pointing out a house with no chimney – a real rarity. Perhaps in 10 years time we will be pointing out buildings with no letterboxes.

Pleasingly, the manager was very apologetic – unlike the assistant who appeared to disappear into the woodwork as the manager returned with the mail. Perhaps because they were embarrassed, or it was their job to empty the letterbox, or they would have to go through all the mail – or perhaps some other reason.  But when a mistake has been made, admit it. He did that, and we had a laugh about it and moved on. If he hadn’t, I would have formally complained or changed banks.

And from a training perspective, what a great scenario for a role play for customer service training! Better than anything I could have made up – but the real experiences always are.


Henin, Herge or Merckx?

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Or even Plastic Bertrand. Or perhaps someone else is the most famous Belgian ever. It is a question that is sometimes discussed when the subject of Belgium comes up, and if it is of particular interest to you, you can see all the possible candidates at I don’t know where this question originates from – possibly the French as they generally don’t have a lot of time for the Belgians – however, the nominations for possible recipients of the title may soon close – for ever. Last week’s elections in Belgium were widely seen as possibly the beginning of the end of Belgium as a country.

The New Flemish Party, led by Bart De Wever, gained 27 seats, up from 6 in 2007. He hopes that the country will “gradually evaporate” and that Flanders will part from Wallonia.

The main problem for Belgium is that it speaks two languages – Dutch in the northern Flanders region and French in the southern Wallonia – and that has stopped it from becoming integrated. I undertook some diversity work with the Belgian police service in the mid 1990s, and I was amazed to see that when they trained their trainers, they had two separate courses, run by two separate groups of people – working from separate rooms in the same building. There was little or no interaction between each group of trainers. I really struggled with this lack of harmony and efficiency, but they didn’t see it as an issue. Perhaps I was ahead of my time – but I don’t think so. It‘s just that it is so much easier to see things objectively when you are outside than when you are inside or part of the culture.

I was discussing this on Friday with one of my coachees who starts a new job tomorrow – and the value that this objectivity can bring to an organisation. I always used to meet with new staff when they had been with us for six weeks as they were not yet part of the culture. They were able to make some really great observations about ways of working that were effective or ineffective. Once they had been with us for three months the moment had passed …

When I had those discussions with the Belgian police officers, they were very open about their country being a “cosmetic” country, which takes me back to the original question about famous Belgians. Teams and organisations – and individuals within them – will achieve greater things when united and focussed rather than divided. If the country does separate, will there be more famous Wallonians and Flemish than there were Belgians? Does this lack of cohesiveness and sense of being for Belgians lead to unfulfilled potential?