Monday, 18 April 2016

Engagement is dead, long live Engagement

It seems that every 5 years or so, a discussion emerges as to whether Employee Engagement, and actively trying to improve it, is still a ‘live’ concept, or that it is dead in the water. Looking at forums, such as those on the business networking site LinkedIn, suggests it is that time again.

And maybe understandably so; as one thing 40 years or so of measuring employee satisfaction, opinion and, more recently, engagement has shown is that a. it isn’t easy, and b. seeing results isn’t always obvious. Yet, companies have been doing this for a long time, and as the cycles suggest, despite its faults, many organisations continue to see its value, and keep coming back to it.

In many ways, working actively to try and improve engagement in an organisation is a bit like taking out membership of your local gym. Just taking out the membership isn’t going to improve your fitness or health; even the odd hour of spinning, rowing or running isn’t necessarily going to be of much help: it requires commitment, stamina, continuity and a plan! And just as many gym memberships fail to ‘deliver’, so do many engagement projects. But would anyone argue that going to the gym isn’t a good idea in principle? Likewise, so I would suggest, is the intention to look after your employees’ engagement.

No longer working on employee engagement projects on a daily basis, yet having sufficient overview of what is happening in organisations, allows me to take a step back every so often, and observe the ‘battlefield’ which is called HR Consulting. Doing so strongly suggests to me that good organisations will continue to focus on these topics, and will be better off as a result

So why do we see this debate emerge time and again you may wonder? I think there are a few reasons, key one being that it is not easy or simple to measure, analyse, report, and give follow up to employee engagement, and, increasingly, people demand ‘simple’. Hence the emergence of things like instant feedback tools (where you press the relevant emoji that represents your feeling there and then), monthly 5-question ‘health checks’, ‘pulse surveys’ etc. So because we failed to explain to managers that it would be useful to maybe invest an hour or so of their time understanding what employee engagement is really about (and I honestly believe it doesn’t take any longer), we just brought the topic down to a level that helps no-one.

I have said in the past that there is a ‘tragedy of employee engagement surveys’, by which I mean that it tends to make good managers even better ones, that some average managers ‘get it’, and grow as a result, but that for the remainder, it may actually work against them. And as much as I hate to say so, sadly there are quite a few bad/poor/mediocre managers around. And what do these people do when they are out of their depth? They become loud, sometimes aggressive, and mock the tools they were given, but failed to understand. It is my firm belief that the reason why in some organisations engagement projects fail to catch on is because of this very fact.

So no, engagement isn’t dead, and nor are employee engagement projects in organisations. Far from it. Sure they evolve, and may take on different formats than before, but all I can say is that if your organisation is one that believes it needs to be simple, fast and instant, is think again. The motivation of your people, and the value add this has for your organisation, deserves more than the expression through a Smiley!

Want to discuss this further? Please get in touch:

Ruud Jansen Venneboer
Managing Partner

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Nice To See You, To See You, Nice!

It wasn’t actually that long ago when many of us had regular get-togethers with colleagues from other parts of our organisation, often held in a central, off-site location. And no, we didn’t always enjoy these meetings that much: the journey could be tiresome, location uninspiring, agenda too full; the list of ‘groans’ is potentially endless. 
Yet, winding the clock forward to today, some of us may actually look back to those meetings with a degree of melancholy. As the age of the ‘Virtual Meeting’, combined with inevitable cost-cutting to survive one economic downturn after another, means that rather than getting together in person, we increasingly ‘meet’ in front of a screen. “Hello Singapore, can you hear us?”. No, I am not going to discuss the pros and cons of ‘virtual’ versus ‘real’ meetings here; I am sure all that can be said about that has no doubt found its way onto the Internet already.
What I do want to discuss is how we run meetings when, as seldom as it may be, we DO decide that meeting in person is the way to go. Let’s start by accepting the challenges (time, cost, location, access, diaries, etc.) haven’t really changed that much. If anything, these may have got worse. There is never an ideal time to do it, or place, cost is always an issue, and people will complain they don’t really (really don't?) have the time. What often happens in response to these issues is that a compromise is reached: let’s book a venue at or near a central airport, let’s have a programme from breakfast all the way through to 6 o’clock, and allow people to arrive late/ leave early if their flight time requires this.

Just read that again! Now consider the effort the organisation has made to get people together in the first place. You have spent a shed-load of money, you’ve made people travel for hours, you’ve upset schedules, I could go on. And yet, despite all of this, and in the face of the fact that these people may not actually meet again face to face for a long time, you decided it was right to cut corners, make compromises, pull together an unrealistic programme, and allow some (key?) people to miss part of the programme. Why? Just so your SVP Eastern Europe could be back home at midnight that day? Or so your Sales Director EMEA would have a full day in the office before travelling to the meeting, getting to your venue an hour after you all kicked off? I ask again: why?
Or let me ask it this way: given we have fewer and fewer of these potential moments of ‘quality time together’ (and I consciously inserted the word ‘potential’), shouldn’t we do all we can to make sure it makes the best possible use of everyone’s time? It really isn’t that hard:
Ensure people stay the night before and (especially in case of a one-day event) the night after your event. It costs little, yet means that everyone attends the sessions organised from start to finish, and – critically – means people have some informal time together, essential for a whole raft of reasons, not least helping the team spirit
  • Have a well thought through programme. This includes a realistic expectation of what can be achieved during the time available, a good ‘flow’, some scheduled ‘e-mail / phone call time’, a few proper breaks, and where at all possible, an external facilitator who ensures the day stays ‘on track’, helps summarise and minute 'what's next?'.
  • Get people to come prepared. Send each delegate one (1!) cleverly collated and manageable pack of pre-reading, and strongly encourage them to read it. This ensures that everyone has sufficient base level knowledge of the points discussed that day, allowing for a smooth running of the sessions and good use of time. Again, having one person in charge of this (rather than delegates receiving endless documents from various contributors) helps a great deal
  • Build in an activity. This can be an evening event, or even something as simple as a short walk after lunch. Something that helps build your team, that clears the mind, and makes people remember the event by. It can be the glue that pulls it all together. And ‘building a team’ doesn’t always require a typical, potentially exhaustive and expensive, team-build event. A round in a bowling alley or an hour of karaoke might just do the trick.
So please, when you next manage to get your team together, give it some (more) thought, and don’t give in easily to people’s moans and groans. It really isn’t that hard to do well, yet, its rewards are huge!

Ruud Jansen Venneboer
Managing Partner
Think the Unthinkable

Monday, 9 March 2015

Can you ever have too much of a good thing?

When your organisation may not want high ‘engagement’

If you read this, then chances are you work for an organisation that uses some form of tool to measure Employee Engagement. You yourself may even be quite involved with the measurement and analysis itself, in which case the mantra ‘High Levels of Engagement are Good’ is likely to be firmly etched on your brain.

For the benefit of mutual understanding, it may be good to just briefly define what I mean by (employee) engagement. Employee Engagement in my book is an individual’s focus on their organisation's goals and values, motivation to contribute to its success, and a sense of pride to be part of this.

The way organisations measure engagement varies, but frequently includes asking people about their understanding of, and buy-in to, the organisation’s strategy, goals and values, some sort of measurement of ‘willingness to contribute / go the extra mile’, questions around pride to be associated with the organisation (aka ‘willingness to wear the T-shirt’) and last but not least, whether they see their medium to long term future with this employer.

In an ideal (fully engaged) situation, an employee responds positively to all of the above. And given that there is – seemingly – a strong correlation between these individual aspects of engagement, you’d be forgiven to think that as far as employees are concerned, it is usually all or nothing. Or in other words: they are either fully engaged, or they are not. Reality however, is often a lot more complicated.

If, as many organisations do, you first and foremost judge your levels of employee engagement through an average score based on all aspects of engagement, you may well be rather pleased when your score has gone up versus prior years, or is higher than your benchmark(s). Yet, chances are you should be concerned.

Because what may be happening is that your (average) score is ‘propped up’ by high levels of ‘desire to stay with the organisation’, whilst levels of strategy buy in, pride and willingness to contribute are average at best. If that looks familiar, what you need to ask yourself is: “what makes these people want to stay?” “Are we paying significantly more than elsewhere in our industry? Have we provided them with golden handcuffs?” In other words: is it really beneficial to have a workforce which is loyal, but which doesn’t necessarily buy in to what you stand for? Does this type of ‘engagement’ really benefit your set up?

Another less than desirable Engagement scenario is where, again, your average score may look okay, but where ‘Pride’ is pulling up the average, with all other elements trailing. Why are staff (still) proud to be with the organisation, when they don’t fully buy-in to your strategy and / or are less than willing to go the extra mile? A scenario like this is more common than you think, and often emerges in organisations or sectors which traditionally carry significant status, yet where management is increasingly failing to ‘take staff with them’ in their efforts to drive change. Or where employees are simply exhausted by the constant change in direction and priorities they face. Good examples of the latter can be found in Education and (public) Health Care.

The best, no, only way to avoid falling in this trap is a simple one: don’t narrow Employee Engagement down to just one number. Only by making sure you look at your employees through all engagement filters available can you judge whether you have a truly healthy level of Engagement, one which will help your organisation move forward. Or is your conclusion that some aspects may need work? Engagement, Pride, Effort and Loyalty should go hand in hand, but where they don’t, best to make sure it isn’t false loyalty that is pulling the cart! And only by having a really good insight in what drives the various aspects of Engagement in your organisation can you work towards improving not just the sum, but all its underlying parts.

Ruud Jansen Venneboer
Managing Partner
Think the Unthinkable


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Using employee data – it really isn’t rocket science

Any organisation employing more than a hand full of employees has employee data. They may not record it well, and therefore struggle to use it, but simple metrics such as Tenure/Turnover, Sickness, Absence and some basic form of Performance Data should be available to almost any business. The larger the outfit, the more metrics will be at hand: sales, new leads, customer feedback, team performance, detailed performance feedback, employee engagement data; the list is potentially endless. And so are the opportunities to use the data to aid improving performance.

And yet, ask a random (senior) manager in any organisation – large or small – what they learn from their people data, and the answer is likely to be: “What do you mean?”, or “Best to ask HR”. Managers in a Sales environment may just about be able to offer some ‘sales per employee’ insight (as this usually impacts on Sales staff remuneration), but that may well be as far as it goes. Sadly, more often than not, HR doesn’t have many answers either.

Compare this with how the average Finance department deals with dozens of performance, market and economic indicators it has within its reach, and the contrast could hardly be more pronounced. Before the working day has even properly started, Finance will have looked at the overnight market trends from the Far East, absorbed the latest currency forecasts, written a report or two about potential financial advantages to changes in sourcing, collected yesterday’s sales figures, and made a raft of decisions on the basis of what it has learned.And as a thank you for their numerical diligence, we call them Bean Counters. Of course, we have all seen examples where the accountant’s desire to achieve ‘best value for money’ lead to results that can best be described as ‘Penny wise and Pound foolish’, but the point should be clear: data is there to be used. Sadly, many of us aren’t very good at it.

Or are we? Is (employee) data really that difficult to understand or interpret? Or do we tend to MAKE it difficult? Or just BELIEVE it is difficult? Comparing one percentage with another, checking to see whether we can discover patterns or relationships, reflecting on why there has been a sudden drop in a particular figure, discussing why Team A is selling so much more than Team B; all of this really shouldn’t be hard. And nor should it be difficult to type up a page or so of what we have discovered, what we believe the impact may be of these findings, and what we propose to do in response. And yet, too often, we don’t seem to see the need to do it.

A good example, and one close to my heart, is when organisations collect employee engagement data. Data which, even to the not massively trained eye, can highlight fascinating dynamics in an organisation, flag up huge inconsistencies in how the business is managed and led, and offer countless opportunities helping turn the organisation into a more successful enterprise. More often than not though, much more time and money is spent collecting this information than effectively using it.

Yet, as said, it really isn’t that hard to do, and do it well. Allow me to offer some suggestions that can possibly help change this for you:

  • Questionnaire – your questionnaire should reflect what your business stands for and wants to achieve. If your questions can’t all be related back to your main objectives, you will struggle following up on them. This is an area where professional expertise may be required
  • Involvement – make sure you keep managers and employees in the loop as to what is happening with your survey, what they can do to help get a high response rate, and when they can expect to receive results for their areas
  • Analysing the main findings – try and obtain benchmarks, allowing you to put your data in context, and set aside some quality time to understand the findings and what these mean to the organisation moving forward. This is usually best done in a small team (as one person’s inevitable bias may impact too heavily on the analysis), where needed supported by an expert from outside.
  • Reporting – try and keep the period between receiving the feedback and reporting the main findings to a minimum. Make sure all managers and staff have seen an overall and balanced summary before they sit down with their own findings, and ideally, finish of this summary with some guidance to next steps. The latter would benefit from some pointers to what Senior Management is going to do in response to these findings.
  • Less is more – keep follow up areas to a minimum (2 – 3 max. per organisational level /group), and make sure you pick those areas where you expect general impact will be high and sustainable. Just 'sticking plasters' on issues is not going to help you in the long term.
  • Integrating findings with day-to-day business practice, vision, values and strategy – a lot of what you learn from your employee feedback should not come as a huge surprise, and you will probably find that much of what you learn can be connected with initiatives already in place, or about to be launched. If so: do precisely that! Just make sure you remember to close the loop by telling staff that this is what you have done, and that their survey feedback was a key contribution.
  • Have help at hand – once ‘lower level’ results (think Business Unit, Department, Location) are being disseminated into the organisation, having some form of help at hand (i.e. a trained internal specialist who can help answer questions managers may have) will dramatically increase your chances of success. And if this person also keeps a little bit of ‘friendly heat’ under the process, chances people will deliver are likely to improve significantly.

And finally: keep it simple! Try and dissuade your managers from over-analysing, or taking on more than is realistically manageable. It is much better to focus on two or three areas, and do these well, then to have a spreadsheet full of well-intended plans, and find none of them actually bear fruit.

Go for it!

Ruud Jansen Venneboer
Managing Partner
Think the Unthinkable

Think the Unthinkable helps organisations better understand the dynamics between their organisation and its various stakeholders. We can help measure, analyse and interpret, facilitate dialogue, and – where relevant – assist in sourcing relevant 3rd party providers. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you believe we may be able to be of assistance.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A Culture of Openness – Essential for Survival, Key to Growth

Ask five people what they associate with ‘a culture of openness’, and you may well get five quite different responses. For example:

  • Where you receive information timely, and through the appropriate channels
  • A culture where people can speak up
  • An environment where new ideas are appreciated, encouraged even
  • With views of employees actively invited
  • Where there is a sense of informality, with minimal barriers between functions, or - importantly! - between hierarchies

Of course, in a true culture of openness, all of the above apply. Yet, have a look at your own organisation, and ask yourself: if each of the above was worth 20 points, what would your organisation score? My guess is very few of you will get to the full 100, or 80 even. 60 maybe? Just 40? Even less than that? Oh dear!

And yet, the evidence that openness is key to success is overwhelming. And not just in the workplace; in your day to day interaction with friends and family, in your role as a Treasurer of the local Amateur Dramatics Society, or in virtually any scenario you can think of, a culture of openness is essential for things to 'work'. Well, unless you are employed by MI5 maybe…

In a different context, just look at the level of nations: take any measure focusing on democracy and freedom of speech (check for example  or, and what will undoubtedly strike you is the overwhelming correlation between levels of democracy and freedom of speech on one hand, and wellbeing and economic prosperity on the other. If you are reading this Messrs Putin, Jinping, Il-Sung, Mugabe, and other assorted autocrats, please take note!

Putting this in a corporate environment, the reasons for a culture of true openness are manifold: would your organisation be a frontrunner in Innovation if people didn’t feel they could share their ideas? Would fraud have a real chance in an environment where people trust they can report suspicious goings-on without being worried it will come back to bite them? Would you really be able to say ‘Customer is King’ if your staff cannot suggest changes to how you operate based on their interactions with these very customers? Could you have a real Performance Culture if your employees feel somehow restricted in feeding back on the performance of colleagues? And last but not least: would they be genuinely engaged if they feel they operate in a corporate straightjacket? Apologies for asking so many rhetorical questions.

Sadly, much of the above will be all too familiar to many. But because it is usually well hidden from view to the outside world, it often requires some sort of scandal, or a major drop in market share, for the proverbial corporate boat to be rocked to such an extent that changes become unavoidable. Sadly, for some this means it is too late. Examples aplenty. In the UK for example, just look at that institution many of us only recently held up as a bastion 'banking with a difference': the Cooperative Bank. Some headlines suggested it was brought down by one individual. I would argue this individual would have been stopped in his tracks a long time ago had he operated in a true culture of openness.

Equally, we can look at companies that lost their competitive edge, and ask ourselves why this might have happened? What stopped them from being  the company everyone looked up to? Was it an inability to challenge ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? A culture where certain ‘unspoken laws’ meant people didn’t question certain decisions? These are just two recognisable scenarios where the inability for people to speak up / challenge cost their employers dearly.

Summarising, allow me to stipulate that openness is not synonymous with anarchy, and that it has very little to do with inefficient decision-making (even though some people will be quick to argue as such). No, a culture of openness is like brushing your teeth; you may believe you can do without it. But then one day sooner or later, the rot is bound to kick in!

Ruud Jansen Venneboer
Managing Partner
Think the Unthinkable
(+44)(0)7768 867768

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Oh Local Management, where art thou?

Who needs local management?

Globalisation of our economies, and in particular of many of the companies making up these economies, is having a major impact on the way people engage with their work. And where undoubtedly this can have a positive bearing on some  (i.e. in terms of possible opportunities for development, growth – or indeed the mere survival - of the companies concerned), other elements are likely to have a much less favourable influence on the day-to-day working lives of the employees within (parts of) these companies. The obvious one being security and certainty; we don’t need to search very long to find examples of large, often global, organisations deciding to close, or sell off, parts of their operations, seemingly, at the stroke of a pen. You may be working for a highly successful operation one day, with this same unit being ‘surplus to requirements’ the next.

Another consequence of the increasingly global nature of the organisations we work for is that management structures often span different geographies, meaning that the person you report to is less and less likely to be occupying a desk near you, often not even in the same location. For many he or she may actually be based in a different country, or worse, time zone! And if that isn’t the case for you, it quite likely is for your boss. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does require a different approach to factors such as teamwork, communication, performance management, and learning and development.

And it has a major side-effect: increasingly, people work in locations where there is no formal type of ‘local’ management structure in place. Where their location, factory or office may, at some stage in the past, have been an almost independently operating unit, with all the managerial structures you would expect, the situation today is likely to be very different. Take-overs, mergers, de-mergers, restructurings, ‘realignments’, downsizing, and whatever other organisational development we can think of, is likely to have led, for many, to working in a local unit of a company increasingly managed from afar.

In many locations, offices, factories and warehouses belonging to large organisations, the concept of a ‘local management team’ is fast disappearing. There will still be people in managerial roles, some may even be quite senior, but the structure of the unit may be such that the various ‘sub-structures’ (think teams, departments, shifts, etc.) are all being run from outside the site, with a large likelihood even that department A ultimately reports to someone based in one location, with department B led from a totally different office, maybe even from a different country. As a result, the notion of a local team or group of individuals being ‘in charge’ of that specific location may have disappeared over the years.

It is this development I would like to put up for debate: is ‘doing away’ with a formal local or ‘site’ management structure simply something we have to get used to, or are there good (enough) reasons to consider some sort of replacement. When I am involved with reporting organisational engagement survey findings, more often than not these organisations will still measure ‘local’, yet without anyone to hand these findings to, as there is no longer a structure facilitating this. Yet, these same survey results often highlight that the site/unit/location has a very distinct culture, with all its associated local issues and challenges. It often actually suggests that as far as employees are concerned, not having this local structure in place is seen as a rather regrettable void.

And this is just one example where some sort of local managerial structure would be helpful. Communication, recruitment, building management and facilities, general housekeeping matters, CSR, local PR and dealing with various day-to-day issues are just a small selection where a local group of employees would very likely benefit from some sort of formalised guidance based in the same location. Or indeed the opportunity for senior management of the organisation to have some eyes and ears on the ground other than the hearsay from individual managers they may currently rely upon.

Putting something like this (back) in place doesn’t have to be a complicated matter, nor would it necessarily lead to an added layer of management and / or bureaucracy. Assuming the unit concerned is of a reasonable size, there is likely to be some form of informal hierarchy already, as will there possibly be people on site with roles that would typically lend themselves to be included in some sort of formalised ‘management’ structure. This is likely to involve HR, but may also benefit from involvement by functions such as Facilities, Communication and Finance. I purposely put the word management in inverted commas, as it may well be beneficial to, when naming such a structure, use different wording. Given its main roles are that of communication and representation, and that it will be of a more consultative rather than decision-making nature, calling it something like the ‘Communication Team’ may well be preferred.

Knowing that most organisations where this is a live scenario will have multiple sites / locations where this applies, running a pilot in one or two of these would be an easy way to test whether working this way is actually beneficial, or whether, for them, the notion of ‘local management’ can be assigned to the organisational scrapheap for ever.

Ruud Jansen Venneboer
Managing Partner
Think the Unthinkable
Making Change Happen