October 2011


One of my colleagues here at ASK recently handed me a Times article that she thought might inspire thoughts (or better yet, words – but let’s not rush to judgement): Driven by team power – which you’ll need a Times subscription to read – looked at the emphasis on teams and team working in several MBA courses. It’s inevitably one of those articles that start with the words “The world of work is an increasingly …”, which must surely now rank as a cliché of business writing, although framing truisms in 500 words or less is the kind of challenge that mainstream journalism tends to set. (One possible explanation for the rise of blogging: the writer can use the number of words that are needed, rather than the number that fit the pre-defined space?)

It’s also one of those truisms that are, to be frank, eternal. Teamwork isn’t some new fangled blinding flash, and I’m sure we could unearth (no pun intended) a few archaeologists and anthropologists to back up that assertion. Somehow, I don’t think Avebury rose from the Wiltshire plains because a tribal leader fancied a monument and sent smoke signals out to a preferred supplier list of stone-working consultants. Teamwork was certainly around 300 years ago when Isaac Newton admitted its importance:

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

And there’s always that timeless electricians’ mantra: “many hands make light work”.

Teamwork is timeless because no man or woman is an island. Even the most anti-social, introverted or malodorous of us depend on others to some extent: unless you are entirely self-sufficient in food, heat, light, shelter, sanitation and so on, others are involved. I will always fondly recall one colleague inadvertently thinking out loud in response to the eternally irritating “There is no “I” in “teamwork” and saying “Yes, but there’s no “f” in “Co-operation” either, is there?”. She wasn’t thanked for her contribution.

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Creating Connections at work at #chru3If you’re not yet familiar with unconferences in general, or Connecting HR in particular, I knew exactly how you felt until last Thursday. Informal gatherings where the attendees formulate the agenda and discuss topics of the greatest importance to them in self-selecting break-out groups, you can read more at http://www.connectinghr.org/ (although searching Twitter for #connectinghr or #chru3 – the hash tag for last week’s event – will add seasoning to the flavour: #chru people tweet like amiably over-caffeinated budgies at the drop of a smartphone).

But to truly taste the atmosphere, you might want to consider attending. I arrived last Thursday with very little idea of what to expect – I was half-anticipating something akin to #occupyHR and toyed with bringing a tent, although that would be to do a disservice to the day’s hosts at The Spring Project, based in a former warehouse in Vauxhall, South London. But I also arrived as far as possible with an open mind – always a good travel companion: if nothing else, it weighs so little to carry. (This came in useful during the Aikido session that had valuable lessons about mental perceptions and assumptions, even if arm-wrestling with someone you’ve only previously read on Twitter is an unusual way to actually meet them.)

Teas, coffees and travel anecdotes duly despatched (London Underground had what traditional HR might discretely note as ‘issues’ that morning), we loosely split into rotating groups for a four-stage ‘world café’ collective brainstorm around a) good things about work, b) bad things about work, c) changes we’d like to see and d) obstacles to them. Out of this process – where my inner calligrapher was as thrilled as my inner child to be encouraged to write on the paper table-cloths – emerged themes for the day’s break-out groups. (We were also encouraged to move freely between these groups.)

Looking back on the points that emerged during the day, I sense a mixture of ‘eternal issues’ that will probably always arise in HR debates and of some interesting and refreshing food for thought – although both felt grounded in daily experience rather than drawn from manuals or the sacred texts of the industry’s gurus. At no point did I feel like the Monty Python character attempting to return the legendary dead parrot: there was a honesty to the discussions that was very welcome.

Break-out group discussion at #chru3

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For regular readers whose medium-term memory has not been erased by the imperatives of haste, you may remember that our account of the experience and value of completing four of the most commonly used psychometric instruments has so far been incomplete. (If you’re new here, or would value a memory-jogger, there are previous articles about MBTI, FIRO-B and the Hogan Development Survey.) Having been delayed by the need to respond to urgent priorities – in which I suspect there is another valuable life lesson – this time we look at the Hogan Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI).

In working life, we probably encounter values most frequently in the context of the organisation we’re working for. Corporate Values Statements are a tricky affair, and they often invite black-humoured responses. You may, for example, have noticed that they often come with the capital letters. While I’m confessing a personal bête noir, English style is to capitalise proper nouns – names for unique things like Malawi, Nissan or Birmingham. To me, Undue Capitalisation always smacks either of a Desperate Need To Look More Important or a mistaken impression that we’ve adopted German grammar. The latter has an agreeable and forgiveable surrealism as long as people don’t start doing the accent, but the former leaves me wondering if someone is overcompensating for something – moral undercapitalisation, perhaps – and hoping that we won’t notice.)

The biggest danger with a values statement is that it is a hollow list of bland sentiments – the corporate version of the ‘New Man and baby’ poster (capitals for irony) that blighted several million walls in the 1980s. (To read more about the distressing gap between image and reality in that poster, both The Daily Mail and the Kicking Up A Storm! blog tell the full story.) Much as the model’s, baby’s and photographer’s life need not have turned out as they did, there is a better way when it comes to corporate values. To quote from a very useful and readable guide to them published by Business in the Community (PDF):

“A company’s statement of values is a high level statement that describes how the company behaves. It is not a mission statement that describes what task the company aims to fulfil. Neither is it a set of commercial objectives. The ‘rule of thumb’ is that if it describes time limited objectives, task-oriented goals, or aspirations of achievement then it is a mission statement, or goals. Corporate values are about how what the company stands for and how its employees behave. They are about framing a role for the business that gives it a purpose beyond profit.”

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Living near a planned city – in this case, Milton Keynes – I’m used to an urban environment that’s rich in greenery (welcome) but equally rich in meandering, winding footpaths. After living here for the last 17 years (during which time I have only occasionally caught myself whistling “Hotel California”), I’ve still to become totally immune to the annoyance of following an agreeably landscaped but snaking route that may or may not get me where I’m trying to go – even when I can see my destination on the horizon. Perhaps it takes an outsider’s eyes to see things afresh, but Bill Bryson’s description of his first encounter with my adopted home in his Notes from a Small Island is one I’ve treasured since I first read it (you can read a longer version of this extract online):

From a hilltop I spied a sprawl of blue roofs about three-quarters of a mile off and thought that might be the shopping mall and headed off for it. The pedestrian walkways, which had seemed rather agreeable to me at first, began to become irritating. They wandered lazily through submerged cuttings, nicely landscaped but with a feeling of being in no hurry to get you anywhere. Clearly they had been laid out by people who had thought of it as a two-dimensional exercise. They followed circuitous, seemingly purposeless routes that must have looked pleasing on paper, but gave no consideration to the idea that people, faced with a long walk between houses and shops, would mostly like to get there in a reasonably direct way. Worse still was the sense of being lost in a semi-subterranean world cut off from visible landmarks. I found myself frequently scrambling up banks just to see where I was, only to discover that it was nowhere near where I wanted to be.”

For an updated opinion on Milton Keynes, you can try Owen Hatherley’s recent A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain – an unexpectedly absorbing (and entertaining) read, but not the book that recently got me thinking about paths again. The trigger was Edgelands, written by two poets (Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts) to hymn those ambiguous places where towns frey into countryside: here you find both new business parks and abandoned industry as time and economics gerrymander boundaries between town and beyond. I’m confident it’s a niche read, despite picking up the Royal Society of Literature’s Jerwood Award for non-fiction, but to shrug at the subject in focus would be to miss some beautiful and thoughtful writing.

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I’ve come across two other reviews of this book which both sum it up rather well and identify how surprising difficult I’ve found reviewing it. Director magazine commented that:

We’ve all spent long days on training courses only to emerge with little more than a single useful piece of paper with one idea on it. This book is a little like 50 of those pieces of paper pulled together in one place.”

An Amazon UK reviewer I can identify only as Dream Diver meanwhile drew these conclusions:

I think the clue that this book is just a compilation is in the title. The author perhaps couldn’t make a decision on which model was best. May be useful for MSc student who needs a simple guide to identify the many models of strategic thinking. As a Complexity thinker I personally think it shows the frailty of depending on models in real world situations.” 

To this reviewer, The Decision Book is a classic example of a book that some will love and cherish and others may not see the point of: it depends what the individuals in question are looking for, how much of it they hope to discover when they find it – and, I guess, how many training courses aimed at Director magazine readers they’ve been on! It also reminded me that models are a double-edged sword – a theme we’ve hardly left untouched on this blog – although the possibilities of over-simplification and the importance of remaining conscious you’re working with a model don’t, judging by the Instructions for Use, escape the authors.

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Dr Anton FranckeissDescribed – almost before it had finished – on Twitter by one attendee as “excellent discussions, networking and thought-provoking keynote sessions at the BAFTA headquarters today”, we’re hugely proud to say that the ASK/MDA Breakfast Briefing was as glittering as its surroundings.

With over 100 people in attendance, the thought-provoking keynote sessions were delivered by Dave Roycroft, Global People Development Consultant at Invesco Ltd (who shared a platform with ASK’s Elaine Wilson, highlighting the success of the company’s Investment Leadership Program and the role of ASK’s tASK simulation), and Pat Taylor of the National Audit Office, who outlined the progress of NAO’s Direct Programme, where the organisation has partnered with an ASK Project team led by Naysan Firoozmand to design and deliver a comprehensive assessment and development programme to identify, select and develop staff within the company with the greatest potential to be promoted to Director within 24 months.

The keynote sessions were followed by breakout sessions, led by consultants from both ASK and MDA:

We’ve added a photo gallery that captures just some of the moments from the morning’s events, but we’d very much welcome the feedback of those that attended – please just add a comment to this post to let us know elements of the sessions you valued the most.

If you weren’t able to attend, but would like to know more about ASK’s offerings in any of these areas, please contact us.

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