Jamie Notter

Consulting: Targeted projects to strengthen your culture and improve performance.

Speaking: Keynotes and concurrent sessions on social business, conflict, and generations.

Writing: Two books (Humanize and Generational Diversity) and an industry-recognized leadership blog (see below).

mistakesOne of the most enduring conclusions that I drew based on the research and writing of Humanize was the idea that when it comes to leadership and management, we have no idea what we’re doing. Seriously, most of our “best practices” are completely made up. I think that we succeed in organizations more often IN SPITE of management, not because of it.

More and more research supports this idea. Today’s “Friday Quote” comes from the May 2014 issue of Harvard Business review, from some researchers that have evidence that using an algorithm to hire employees yields people who consistently outperform employees chosen by a human being:

Our analysis of 17 studies of applicant evaluations shows that a simple equation outperforms human decisions by at least 25%. The effect holds in any situation with a large number of candidates, regardless of whether the job is on the front line, in middle management, or (yes) the C-suite. 


What to Do About Bullying Behavior

bullyI spoke about both conflict and culture this week, and at the conflict session a participant asked for advice in dealing with a Board leader who was being somewhat “hard charging” on a conference call. He started by saying his point was “non-negotiable,” and then declared that in this year the membership would grow by more than 100% and he wanted to know how the organization was going to achieve that. I was asked how I would have responded to this Board Chair’s “non-negotiable” point.

Now, I’m all for stretch goals and for not just settling with what we did last year, but if you declare your point to be non-negotiable, particularly as a volunteer leader, then you are making it clear (without saying so explicitly) that the rest of us on that call have no choice but to support you.

That’s being a bully. He may have had good intentions (growing membership), but he was using the power of his position to make people do things his way. That’s bullying. Others did not feel free to speak their mind. They probably worried about the consequences they might face if they challenged this “non-negotiable” point. Apparently in the actual conversation, they complied with the bully’s request, eventually asking the consultant what SHE thought they should do.

So here’s what should have happened: someone should have called the bully out on his behavior. That’s probably the best defense against bullies–pointing out what they are doing. I know it’s not easy, and for the record you don’t actually call them a bully (which will just make them mad), but you have to call out their specific behavior and the impact it’s having.

Hey Bob, I know you’re passionate about growing membership, but when you say that the answer is “non-negotiable,” you are basically demanding that the rest of us hold back our opinions if they differ from yours. That shuts down the conversation in this group, and that doesn’t work for us. We generate better solutions and ideas when we can have open conversations where we challenge each other respectfully, and people speak their minds.

And here’s what makes challenging bullies really easy: clarity about your culture. Every organization should be clear enough about the connection between (a) what the organization values internally, and (b) what drives success. You should know whether or not your culture is a place where people always feel free to speak the truth, for instance. And not because you think truth-telling is cool–but because you know that when people speak the truth you generate better solutions or are somehow more successful. Do you see a clear connection between an organization where people feel safe–safe to speak their mind, safe to be themselves, safe to challenge ideas of people higher up in the hierarchy–and actually getting better results? Because if you do, then it’s easy to stand up to bullying behavior (even from the Board Chair), because you are clear that the organization will not succeed as much when that kind of behavior is present. It’s not about the bully’s character or opinions or attitudes. It’s about who we are in this culture and what truly works.

But if you can’t actually articulate your culture, then you have less ground on which to take a stand. If no one ever got clear on who we are as an organization and why, then pretty much any Board chair (or new staff person) can come in and wreak havoc based on their own background and experiences, and it’s much harder to challenge them. Weakly defined cultures are breeding grounds for all the bad behavior we say we don’t want in our workplace, but don’t do enough to prevent.

How Long Does Culture Change Take?

evolutionI was at an event last week for association CEOs on finding and keeping top talent. The topic of culture was raised repeatedly (yay!), but in the middle of the panel discussion, a CEO of a large and successful association dropped this bomb (not a direct quote, but my paraphrase of what she said):

It takes 8 years to change a culture. If you’re a real superstar, you might be able to change culture in a little less than eight years, but it’s tough.

My jaw hit the floor, but when I looked around, there seemed to be mostly nods in agreement. Everyone agrees with this?!

Of course I have no specific idea of what she meant by “change your culture,” and I didn’t have a chance to ask her, so this not about the CEO’s specific statement.

This is about the prevailing myth that culture takes a long time to change. Not only is that a myth, it’s a dangerous one, because if your organization can’t figure out how to change culture in less than 8 years, then you are guaranteeing your own irrelevance. Even strong, successful cultures will make significant changes over an eight-year period. To think, in this day and age, that your culture would not be changing strikes me as ludicrous.

Is culture change hard work? Sure. Does it take time? Absolutely. If you’re making a dramatic shift that affects habits and behaviors at all levels, then you’ll need to reinforce that through a few cycles of behavior-impact-learning. Depending on the size of the organization and the processes involved, you can be definitely looking at a year or two before you can build and reinforce new habits. But eight years?!

If you think you’re different–you’re not. I get that you’re unique, and your members are stuck in their ways, or your industry is heavily regulated, but whatever excuse you have, it can’t result in an 8-year change window. Not if you want to be around in eight years. In fact, if that’s you, then I wouldn’t worry about your specific culture at first. I would start changing whatever you can to build your capacity for ongoing change and renewal. You’ll need that foundation before you start talking about culture.

hbrToday’s Friday Quote is from an article in Harvard Business Review by Darrell Rigby on the need to fuse the digital and brick-and-mortar operations of retail. It’s a useful reminder that organizations–still–are putting themselves at the center of the universe, and that’s not going to continue to pay off.

Here we are, a quarter century into the digital revolution, yet many companies still agonize over whether to invest significant resources in digital capabilities. Those that have done so tend to run their digital operations as independent business units–the way companies prefer to manage them, as opposed to the way customers expect to use them. 

perspectiveThis is a guest post from Eric Lanke, the CEO of the National Fluid Power Association. This is the fourth in a series of posts he’s writing about how he, as a CEO, is building and sustaining an intentional culture in his organization, a national trade association. His first three posts were on:

Today, I’m going to talk about another way I’m trying to help my association develop a culture that actively seeks to understand the world of our members. Bringing people with industry experience into our office and into our planning processes.

This is very much a work-in-progress, and still in its initial stages. A former employee of one of my association members is now working in a strategically-aligned external organization, and both of us have recognized the value to both of our organizations in more closely coordinating our activities. What that has meant for my organization is that this individual, and the significant industry knowledge and experience he possesses, is part of our planning discussions and even serving on some of our work teams.

It’s not a perfect arrangement. It’s challenging the organization’s current understanding of what’s inside and what’s outside our sphere of influence and responsibility. People are confused about what to share, who to include, what to take ownership of, and what to rely on others to do. From my point of view, these are natural growing pains associated with the entry of any new player on the team.

But I am already seeing the benefit of his inclusion. His is a voice that can speak up when one of our discussions begins to move away from the realities of our members’ marketplace. If he doesn’t understand something, we can explain it to him–which helps to sharpen our own perspective on what we’re trying to accomplish. In return, he can better explain what such a strategy might look like from the perspective of someone we’re trying to serve, and help us brainstorm and better answer or path forward.

His presence is also making me think about other ways to bake this kind of interaction into more of our program planning and execution teams. In an association world that is rushing towards micro-volunteering and short-term engagement opportunities, ad hoc industry advisors that can sit-in for an hour or two, listen as staff develop and coordinate their plans for programs designed to serve member needs, and offer their honest feedback and insights, seem like an idea whose time has come.

Some associations have people from the industry or profession they represent permanently on their staff rosters, but many do not. If yours in one of the latter, I would encourage you to find some way to incorporate this expertise.

Digital is More than Technology

brainonrainbowsDigital is a mindset.

We’ll be exploring that more in our upcoming book, but I was flipping through Altimeter’s 2014 “State of Digital Transformation” report, and in the companies they surveyed (88% of whom reported being in the middle of a digital transformation initiative), the most important challenge they faced was not limited resources, not thinking beyond a “campaign mentality,” and not even securing the executive support of leadership.

It’s culture.

63% said changing company culture is an “extremely significant” challenge, and only 3% said it was not significant at all (and my guess is that within that last category, 1.5% are in complete denial and the other 1.5% are the ones with totally awesome and adaptive cultures).

Just a little more evidence supporting my conclusion in last week’s post.

uxYou wouldn’t think of designing a piece of software these days without considering the user experience. There is now a whole cadre of “user experience professionals” (with their own association, of course) who help to ensure that the end product is designed very specifically with the user’s experience in mind. In the “old days,” software was more frequently designed in ways that simply made sense to the designers and coders, often leaving the users frustrated. In today’s digital world, that is no longer acceptable.

This is a big shift. It puts the user at the center of the universe, rather than the company or organization, and that’s hard. Users are a diverse group, and can be quite fickle. It’s much easier to decide things centrally and make everyone else fit into your plans and preferences. But if I get an app that is hard to use, I delete it instantly and go download another one. Companies can’t afford to design stuff that doesn’t work for me, the user.

And while more and more people get this around product/software design, the idea hasn’t quite made its way into the internal workings of the organization. We get that customers drive the business, so we are starting to put them at the center, but why isn’t that true when it comes to our employees and how we run the business? Personnel costs are typically the highest category of expense, by far, in organizations. We frequently cite how valuable these human “resources” are and how we couldn’t get anything done if it weren’t for all of our employees.

Yet we rarely design our “product” (our organization, our processes, our culture) with those users in mind. We typically design it with maybe a handful of the most senior leaders in mind. I think a lot of managers would consider it inefficient to try and design processes that took into account the unique nature of each of our employees, even though we’re now gathering that kind of data about customer segments and personas as we develop our products.

But there are companies who are applying this user experience design internally. One Danish company that provides software design and testing services has a large percentage of employees who have some form of autism spectrum disorder. These individuals have particular talents that are perfectly suited for the jobs at hand, even though they struggle socially or with other tasks. This has been eye-opening for the company, and others who are trying similar things:

Such companies are discovering important but unexpected benefits. For example, some client managers who supervise Specialisterne employees have said that learning to design a work environment to maximize the effectiveness of people with autism–and learning to adapt a management style to better fit an individual employee–helps them to achieve better results from a broad range of employees. In other words, thinking about work environments from the employees’ perspective can provide managers with  a tool that can generate impact in many parts of the organization.

This is one example of applying the mindset of the digital world to how we run our organizations, and I think you’ll be seeing more and more of this in the years to come.


changeboardIf you want real change, then start with culture.

Let me run some if/then suppositions by you:

  • If you want to change your business model, then you need to change your culture.
  • If you want to build an online community, then you need to change your culture.
  • If you want to redesign your membership model, then you need to change your culture.
  • If you want headquarters and the components to work in true partnership, then you need to change your culture.
  • If you want to make a bold strategic move, then you need to change your culture.
  • If you want to restructure so you can better serve your marketplace and your customers, then you need to change your culture.

Now, before you try to stop me with the “Hey Mr. Culture Consultant, just because you have a hammer, that doesn’t make everything a nail” argument, let me explain. I know culture is a bit of a complex animal, but there is a core principle that is flatly true for every organization. Organizational culture boils down to what is truly valued. What we value in our culture gets rewarded and supported. What we don’t value is pushed away (fired, ostracized, criticized, rejected, ignored). When there is alignment between what is valued and what drives our success, then we have an organization with a strong culture, and organizations with strong cultures attract the best employees, the most loyal customers, and the most supportive partners.

And here’s another basic truth: at some point, your organization will need to change. The schedule isn’t always predictable, and there are certainly times when organizations can chug along without a whole lot of major change going on. But eventually (and sooner rather than later these days, if you ask me), you’ll hit something like the changes listed above. You’ll realize that your local branches are operating in a model that doesn’t work well any more. You’ll realize that your business model isn’t cutting it. You’ll realize that you need to engage your customers or members online or in social networks in ways you haven’t before. 

And at that point, you’ll probably forget about culture, because you’ll be so focused on the big change. This is understandable. It’s hard to mobilize everyone around a new business model or strategic move, for example, so it will occupy a lot of your attention. But big changes like that always end up shifting what is valued internally. Change means new behaviors and paying attention to new things, and (sometimes more importantly) NOT paying attention to some old things. That’s all about what is valued, so it’s about your culture. If you make the big change and don’t adjust your culture’s emphasis on what is valued, the change will fail.

This is why leaders need a fundamental understanding of their own culture and a basic competence in culture change. You don’t have to work on your culture all the time, but you have to be ready to work on your culture at any time, so all of that other important work you do as a leader actually works. If you’re at all fuzzy about what your culture is (or should be), then now is the time to get caught up.

The Future is Faster

speeddogYesterday I talked about becoming flatter as an organization in order to increase learning and agility. Today’s lesson (also from Sloan Management Review) is about speed. The two are related, of course. One of the reasons we loathe bureaucracy is that it slows things down, so you’d think becoming more flat would help with that. But the truth is, speed is not solely determined by amount of hierarchy. In China, as the SMR article points out, many organizations who are making great strides in innovation are “combining vertical hierarchy with horizontal flexibility,” as contradictory as that may sound. The hierarchy is vertical and very strong. Senior managers set the goals, and their word is law. But if an innovation initiative hits a snag, the project team brings together people from all over the organization (heavily based on personal relationships, rather than title) to solve the problem in a “huddle and act” kind of way. The downside is that there is not much to challenge the senior managers if they get their goals wrong, but the upside is speed. The multinational corporations the authors studied had a flatter structure, but that led to structured, systematic processes for decision making.

Although this approach might mitigate risk, it often reduces innovation to a snail’s pace. By contrast, top-down goal setting combined with horizontal flexibility can accelerate the innovation process dramatically by enabling the organization to reconfigure itself continually to serve customer demand, back new initiatives, solve problems as they arise, and speed up joint learning.

There is a shift taking place. The risk of getting things wrong still exists, but it is becoming eclipsed by the risk of not moving fast enough.

The Future is Flatter

herarhcysharingI’m always happy to see research that supports what we wrote about in Humanize. The lastest comes from an article in MIT’s Sloan Management Review about success Nestle had with a social media campaign. Two researchers in the UK concluded that a big part of the success could be attributed to the social media team’s ability to actually work around the existing hierarchy:

We believe that hierarchical structures can act as a barrier that prevents external knowledge of consumers from reaching the business; flatter, less bureaucratic structures seem to be as important to social media success as sophisticated data analysis. Nestle deployed a decentralized, cross-functional team spearheaded by an internal social media “champion” so the team could more easily traverse internal functions and departments and avoid the structural barriers that often hamper learning in Nestle, as at so many global companies.

What’s a little disconcerting is the casual way that the authors characterize the global companies and their inability to learn, as if that is something that is optional. Well, I guess it has been optional (they did become global companies without learning well), but it is becoming increasingly less so. Becoming flatter helps you learn. My money’s on the companies that figure that out sooner rather than later.