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Mind the gap

Several years ago a friend of mine visited London for the first time. He flew into Heathrow, the only London airport which is directly linked to the city centre by underground train – known locally as ‘the tube’. He bought his ticket, took a map of the tube system and arrived at his hotel mid evening without incident. The next day he decided to explore the streets of London using his tube map to guide him. He got seriously lost and became increasingly angry … with the map! This unfortunate episode highlights the fact that maps are designed for specific purposes in mind. They are effective tools when used in the right context – a tube map works well underground but if you expect it to be equally useful at surface level then you will inevitably be disappointed. In today’s dynamic environment where frequent change often makes people emotively yearn for the stability of their comfort zones, the tendency to find ourselves doing something similar is alluring, but ultimately counterproductive.

The art of human communication is not an exact science. There is always a difference between what the sender means to communicate and what is understood by the receiver (known in the jargon as the intention-impact gap). 

Human beings create their own, highly subjective, maps with the specific purpose of facilitating decision making. They are formed by priortising some aspects of their own context and filtering other features. What is key to remember is that an individual’s context is fundamental in how the map is formed. As the Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto says ‘Identity isn’t you, identity is how you are related to things. You’ve got to be located.’ When we use our maps in situations different from where we psychologically and geographically built them we are all too often expecting the external reality to conform to our version.  

Stella Ting-Toomey makes a distinction between two approaches to communicating, She defines ‘habitual ways of thinking and behaving without conscious awareness of our underlying intentions and/or emotions’ as mindless communication. This is our usual behaviour and is simply using our subjective map to filter the external situation. It is not bad but rather a lazy, automatic way which increases the possibility of misunderstanding and decreases effective and efficient communication.  Ting -Toomey suggests that a more successful approach is to be mindful which she describes as ‘being aware of our own and others’ behavior in the situation, and paying focussed attention to the process of communication taking place between us and dissimilar others’. Taking the complete equation into consideration makes sense – before communicating I assess my needs, your needs, timing and the specific situation. Without a doubt this is much easier during asynchronous communication such as e-mail where we can think before we send rather than in situations of real time feedback. Consciously targeting communication needs more time and effort than the reflex response our mindless approach uses. So, is that the end of the story? Mindful thumbs up, mindless thumbs down. Not quite! 

I believe we should look at mindful communication more closely. When someone takes into account the situation and attempts to reduce the intention-impact gap they are showing a positive mindful approach. They are working on both the task and the relationship (how can I make it easier for you to understand what I mean?). However, the best manipulators also use the mindful approach by studying the context (how can I get you to do what I want without you realising that I am using you?). This negative mindful behaviour usually results in a short-term gain for the sender but at a considerable medium to long term risk of endangering the relationship if the receiver discovers they are being used. In conclusion, there are three approaches each with their relative pros and cons:

  • Mindless is effortless but ineffective, 
  • Mindful negative usually provides a short-term return but potentially destroys trust
  • Mindful positive consciously works on both objective and relationship but requires sensitivity to context

Once we become self-aware of our mental maps as a potential source of dependency it becomes easier to understand how we can intentionally increase the impact we could have on the situation. To ensure your communication is always on track please always remember to mind the gap … positively!

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Organisations needs more Kokopelli… and so do I!

Have you ever heard about the legend of Kokopelli?

Kokopelli is one of the most intriguing and widespread images surviving from ancient Anasazi Indian mythology. It is considered the spirit of music and the symbol of fertility who brought well-being to the people, assuring success in hunting, planting and growing crops, and human conception.

There are several legends around Kokopelli. But what I would like to do here is tell you how I discovered it.

Some weeks ago I was speaking about leadership with a client –  a relatively young leader who has always impressed me for his degree of unconventional thinking. He was commenting on the fact that ‘organisations need more dreamers’.

“Tell me more?” I asked

“Well, I have a tattoo which represents Kokopelli. You can read up all the legends and stories about Kokopelli. What has always intrigued me about this symbol is that whatever he does, wherever he goes, his effects stay. When he arrives in a new place his presence is never silent though it is never noisy.

 Through his songs and his rebellious spirit, he always makes himself heard.  More importantly, though, he doesn’t just ‘come and go’, he leaves something behind him. Nobody is ever the same after meeting Kokopelli. But nobody depends on Kokopelli for good.  It is as though his music stayed in the background and moulded with the people and landscape taking on a different rhythm”.

The words of this client and his story about Kokopelli accompanied me in the journey back home when I started writing this blog. Why did it make me think so much? Why did it resonate with me so much?

This is what I thought…

Organisations need more Kokopelli – they need people who want to shake things up not just for the sake of doing it but because they take full accountability of the effects.

Organisations need people that will raise their head and look around, that want to scan inside and outside of their context for a bigger impact.

Organisations need leaders that constantly work towards leaving a legacy.

More importantly, organisations need leaders who don’t feel indispensable because they know that if they have succeeded in having an impact, that impact will be much stronger when they leave.

What else?

I met this same client the other day – just after his top-level management role was confirmed. This is what he said:

 “Now I need to focus on growing the person who will replace me. My Kokopelli has to ensure that the echo of his music takes a new rhythm – the rhythm of its legacy”.

Personally I am in a fascinating moment of my professional life. Following years of believing that time was a relative concept for me because my face and my spirit don’t show my age, I have now started to notice a shift in the way I look at myself and those around me…and in the way people perceive me as a woman and as a leader.

An example? As the Head of the TCO Coaching Practice I find myself thinking everyday about the rhythm that I want my Kokopelli to leave behind.

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Communication, Lifestyle

LUSH – The value of connection

Volatility and unpredictability has been hitting the retail sector. The recent closures at Toys R Us, and HMV are only two high profile examples of how retail is struggling in the fast changing digital age. In the USA, job losses in the sector have been occurring in 10 of the last 12 months. In the UK 15% of spending is online (20% in fashion) and 82% of shoppers are using self-service tills, which has squeezed another 62,000 jobs out of the retail sector. Retail has simply had the fastest falls in employment of all sectors in the UK. Gloom and doom. Many in the sector are papering over the cracks but this is not the time for resilience, it’s time for reinvention.

Perhaps my experience in Lush is sign of what retailers need to do rethink the relationship with consumers and the purpose of retailing. And that’s the key: providing an ‘Experience’.

Just before Christmas last year I entered – or more precisely I was dragged into – a store in Oxford Street, London, by my family. I am NOT a fan of cosmetic stores and have a boredom threshold of about 3 nano seconds, before I start thinking of excuses to leave. After all, life is short and shouldn’t, in my view, require excessive contact with multi-coloured bath bombs and shower gels.

But I walked out a convert…and proud owner of far too many aforementioned bath bombs and shower gels than I can possibly use use in my now 1-hour shortened life?

Why? The power of human connection. I was already in conversation with a store assistant (or perhaps they should be called ‘engagers’) as I was climbing the stairs. Simple authentic communication between humans. No hard sell – the focus was on connection. I was greeted by a new employee who was as infectiously bubbly as their bubble baths and made no excuse for being unable to answer my questions. Seemed like there was a healthy culture here of being yourself in the presence of the customer and admitting you didn’t know everything. She simply brought in more experienced assistants and chatted easily about her experience in the store. She said she had met a huge range of different people working there and loved the contact with the rest of the world who came to the store.

Who needs to be a frequent flyer when you can be exposed to people from over 50 nationalities in a day?

Most of the assistants flaunt their individuality and diversity (from dress to hairstyles), but all of them seemed genuinely interested in finding out who we were and…well, making contact. There was lots of experimenting with bath bombs from the shelves in sinks of coloured water – tactile, immediate, joyful. I asked what the downside of working there was…she thought about it and said she couldn’t really say at the moment – only upsides. Can’t imagine what the employee engagement survey says, but seeing that Lush is always in the top 10 best retailers to work for, I presume they are doing something right. This was looking after your employees as a prerequisite for customer delight.

As I left the store looked back and saw an employee enjoying herself with bubble blowing – not as a performance for customers, but seemingly for her own satisfaction. Nice.

Lush have a strong focus on ethical sourced products, not animal tested…and causes and campaigns which they report on with an ‘educational’ focus on their website etc. They are very smart users of social media and position themselves as social activists. This elevates the purchase of bubble bath to support for projects which make a difference. Who says soap can’t (indirectly) save lives.

But the key to my conversion was the simple act of allowing employees to be their authentic selves with customers – like meeting up with friends of friends and getting to know them in all their diversity. Refreshing.

As Seth Godin said: “In their race to out-Walmart Walmart, retailers everywhere forgot the real reason we need stores. Because shopping together makes us feel connected. Because it’s fun. Because there’s something about the shopping that’s almost as good (or even better) than the buying part. The buying race is over. Amazon won. The shopping race, though, the struggle to create experiences that are worth paying for, that’s just beginning.”

…and how well Lush has created value in turbulent times out of such experiences. Retailing is not dead if retailers remember that humans need connection.

Now off to meditate on reinventing our own client/participant experience…by indulging in my absurdly over-stocked bubble bath collection….

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The Human Side to the Digital Revolution

The last few years have seen increasing concern about the role of digitalisation and its impact on people’s lives. The tech community is full of hope and drive but the common man regards it as the reason for feeling left behind by the pace of change. I believe that this is the main reason behind the protest vote which has resulted in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to name just two examples. It represents a vote against the present system rather than for a meaningful alternative.

Connectivity means change happens faster, impacts further and is felt sooner than ever before. It is driven by The Three ‘A’s – Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics. Automation, or automatic control, can be seen in robotics and is the force behind The Internet of Things which allows your fridge to speak to your cellphone and potentially every other electrical device you own! Artificial Intelligence is the ability for machines to learn from the environment they are operating in and then change behaviour accordingly . Finally data analytics pores through data looking for patterns and trends to create information to make decision making more effective.

A 2017 study by the McKinsey Global Institute entitled ‘A Future That Works – Automation, Employment and Productivity’ estimates that 60% of all current occupations contain at least 30% of activities that are technically automatable merely by adapting currently available technology. These percentages increase dramatically when jobs include a high level of predictable physical activities and collecting or processing data. This means that both manual and knowledge workers will see a change in what they do and how they do it. Is this then in line with the worst fears of protest voters? If the system stays the same as it is presently is then yes, it is time to start worrying. However, the combined impact of the 3 As is highly disruptive to the system itself. Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggest that we are at the start of a great restructuring where how we work both as organisations and individuals is lagging far behind the advances in technology.

This creates an interesting situation. It makes no sense for humans to do activities which automation can do more efficiently and effectively – we cannot ‘out-machine’ the machines. So what can we do? The answer is in our imperfections! Richard Florida states that ‘Human creativity is the ultimate economic resource’. Humans can see the world for what is not and what it could be. While digitalisation enables, it is how it is guided by humans that makes the difference. Those companies that can create the conditions to harness the distinctly human side of humans will have a bright future. Those that don’t, won’t!

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