What grandson No2, taught me about relentless self-belief.

June 19, 2017

I went to the neighbourhood park with grandson No2, the other day. He’s just two years old. He decided, because no-one told him he couldn’t, to clamber up the slide before sliding down it. He ignored the step ladder. And he kept doing it. When he got to the steepest point and his gumboots lost traction he was happy to enlist my help to get to the top. Then he’d slide down and do it all again. He got a huge amount of joy and satisfaction out of doing something just because he could. The fact it had a degree of difficulty made him even more determined. The unconventional route to the top seemed to intrigue him. And he understood if he needed a wee bit of help, I was there for him. He had no fear. He trusted the world. He found a new way of getting fun out of conventional playground equipment.

We need workplaces that allow the same behaviours, and we need them now, not when incoming generations reach management positions. Everywhere I go, every organisation I work with I see, and smell, fear. Some teams know it, do not like it, and are doing something about it. Most aren’t.

I met the long-term CIO of a major government agency at an event a while back. Out of courtesy I went over to introduce myself. He looked at my outstretched hand and said “I don’t care who you are, or what you’re selling, we’ll never buy from you.” Wow, talk about bad manners, a bigger-than-Ben-Hur ego, and a closed mind. What was he afraid of? And what sort of culture existed in that organisation? Take a guess, you’ll probably be right.

I remember an occasion when I met with 7 managers from an agency and they told me that a specific report from our software needed to be presented in 7 different formats for their 7 senior managers. When I asked if the content was the same they replied YES, but everyone wanted it in different places on the page. Some wanted red highlights, others blue. Really! Not one of those 7 managers was prepared to rock the boat and tell the 7 senior managers their behaviours meant a colossal waste of time and money, every single month they ran the report. Everyone, it seems, was afraid of the repercussions so persisted with the outlandish.

I’ve been part of many tortuous RFP tender processes across both private and public sector organisations. Most of them made little sense in terms of selecting something to deliver value. I remember one that had 1100 questions and when we were invited to present there were 40 people in the room, all with different requirements and views of the potential solution. Apparently everyone with an opinion was invited into the selection process. We didn’t win and I’m glad we didn’t because the whole process was doomed to failure. Imagine trying to keep 40 ‘customers’ happy.

On other occasions decisions have been made on the back of check boxes in the tender documents, without ever seeing the software operating. The thinking is solutions that can be pigeon-hold into a check list must be the same. So wrong. On one occasion, the vendor couldn’t get the software running – hmm danger signal perhaps - so presented glossy screenshots instead – and won the tender! Perhaps not surprisingly the captured market that came with winning the bid has voted with its feet. Who knew that would happen! We always tell potential customers to try-before-they-buy so they know how the software looks, feels and works. Doing anything else is monumental madness. You probably don’t buy a house without going inside it, or a car without test-driving it. But, in the world of management, madness often prevails. Building in systemic stupidity is a whole lot worse than making mistakes as an individual.

OK, let’s admit people make mistakes. Sometimes they’re dumb mistakes. Too often, especially in public sector agencies when these mistakes happen people clamour for someone’s immediate resignation. Here’s the newsflash. Sacking someone because they screwed up, won’t fix the screw-up problem. We’re human and we will continue to make mistakes. The question is how to fix systems so it doesn’t happen again, and how the lessons learned can be applied across the business to similar problem areas. Fixing one problem is never going to be good enough.

I’d rather work with people who make mistakes and learn from them than people who are so scared of breaking eggs they stick them away in a locked safe, in a locked room, in a locked building.

Fear, and its accompanying attribute, ‘no-common-sense’ seem to hold sway. It doesn’t need to.

I once worked on a 2-person team designing a new fitness test for a police agency. The senior management team gave us carte blanche to come up with something different to the traditional 30 minute strength and aerobic tests. So we designed something that focused on assessing how a police officer would go from a static position into a fully-fledged fight lasting 2 minutes. The solution was different to anything in the world and the Executive not only supported us; they got out of our way. As a result, we trusted them, and ourselves. The test has now been in operation for over 30 years, and is still different to anything else in the world.

I was talking the other day with a manager I really rate. He’s making major organisational changes, quietly and steadily. I asked him if he got stressed. He said No, never, because so long as things kept moving forward and things were happening, and they could experiment and adapt, what was there to get stressed about. He didn’t categorise things as right or wrong, just different and, maybe, new. We then talked about the dreadful London fire and frankly that put it all in perspective.

There’s hope. There are plenty of good people doing good things for the right reasons. These are people fed-up with an uninspiring, sometimes destructive, status quo. They’re looking for meaning and are prepared to spawn and share new thinking, great ideas and energy. And it’s not generational. It’s about people willing to give it a crack; all ages, all roles, different levels and types of experience and qualifications. Now we’re going to work hard to connect these folks up, share adventures and challenges and see what transpires.

Grandson No2 shared his adventure with me. We both left the playground feeling better about the world. That works for me.