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