Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Marshmallow Challenge

Almost invariably, the world of work is a world where people must work with other people.
Team colleagues, customers, bosses, and subordinates must all interact to get things done.

But human beings are complex animals. They are not pure intellects with limbs, but people - with distorted beliefs, personal agendas, fears, skills and skills gaps, grievances and more. So it's not really surprising that things don't always go well. Squabbles, rivalries, obstruction, resentments and prejudice often coalesce to form stable company cultures, and those get in the way. In the way of happiness at work, in the way of corporate growth and profitability.

Almost invariably, in my corporate work, I find two problems. One is the presenting problem and the other is the reason why the obvious solution can't easily be had. And that one's about people interacting. I often think that solving the presenting problem is 10% of the final solution, the other 90% is about stitching that solution into a world of people.

Welcome to management!

Of course, we're talking about teams here, and the photo is from a TED talk which you can find here. It describes a team building exercise in which the task is to construct the tallest tower you can in 18 minutes. You have to build it with dry spaghetti and it must support a marshmallow on top. Great fun, and - if you watch the video, you'll learn more. But if you want an organisation in which works well, you'll need more than team building exercises. You'll need to build a healthy company culture. Here's how:
  • Hire the right people. Don't hire skills, hire people. You can always add skills, but it's a tough challenge to add decency or a work ethic or to excise bitterness or a bullying mentality.Don't run an operation whose policies stink. Every single policy should be justifiable to anyone with a combination of logic and sound ethics. Any policy that can't stand up to that deserves to fall down.
  • Treat people with respect. Don't abuse people, whatever their level of contribution and whatever yours. Recognise that they're people with lives which don't necessarily revolve around the company. Listen to them.
  • Operate an open, effective meritocracy. Publicly reward high contributors and act on low contributors, which means acting in a way which is respectful whilst also addressing honestly, the issues in hand. Escalate gradually and predictably through concern and discussion through to training, re-assignment and eventual removal. The only two acceptable outcomes are (1) it's fixed or (2) they're gone - and the time span should not be more than a year and ideally far far less.
  • Make the working environment light, fun and creative. Most of that will flow naturally from the other items, but always be on the lookout for opportunities to help it along - and ask people how you can do more. Lead from the front in this.
If you get these right, you're well on the way and everything well naturally get much easier. Your company will self-organise and self-solve around your agenda and your objectives. But if you have an unhealthy corporate culture, then you can expect to need to drive like a slave, to churn staff expensively and disruptively, and to hate the process. Oh, and you won't make nearly as much money.

I can help. Feel free to contact me.

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