His focus was understandably on what wasn’t working. But what about what was working?
“Well,” I offered, “despite the disappointment of that survey, we have other information. As you’d expect, I did a Google search before coming here today. I believe you have 50,000 visitors a day. That’s up 7% on last year.”
“Somehow, the vast majority of those visits go smoothly. People do their shopping, eat, and use the various facilities. Some of them temporarily lose their kids and are reunited with them by your staff. There are first-aid incidents that are handled without drama.”
“So we know that at least some of your staff members are engaged. I also know that I personally have never had a bad experience in many visits as a ‘civilian’. So, although this is all anecdotal, and although you’ve clearly got an issue to address, you must be doing some things right. In fact, a load of people must be doing a load of things right. Let’s start there.”
The director’s mood visibly brightened. He said: “That’s completely changed my perspective. I feel a hundred times better.” And more importantly, he felt empowered to take that message to the management team and his own staff. They realised they had overlooked resources and set about building on them with renewed enthusiasm.
Start With What Works
Even an average performer is doing lots right. We don’t tend to focus on that. We tend to focus on what’s not working. In my book Start With What Works: a faster way to grow your business, I introduce a brilliant solution-focused technique — called Scaling— for helping people flip their mindsets.
Here are the steps.
In relation to your current situation, ask yourself: “What’s my best hope?”
Create a scale. If your best hope is 10/10, and its opposite is zero, where are you on the scale?
Most people say something in the range of 3 – 7. Let’s say you pick 6.
Then ask the question: What aren’t we a 5? What is stopping us being worse? (We must
be doing some things right.)
Inventory the reasons you are at least a 5. What are those strengths and capabilities? What’s working? (This is what I did informally with the shopping centre director.)
Look at those strengths and capabilities and ask yourself what you can do with them.
Here’s another example.
Help Teams to Help Themselves
I worked with a financial institution where employee satisfaction among new recruits was embarrassing, and staff turnover stood out even in an industry notorious for poor retention. Employees felt like cogs in a machine. They didn’t understand how their jobs fitted in, or why they mattered. This was despite the extensive, and expensive, training the company provided during induction to try to explain the job and its significance.
In response to the problem, the company engaged consultants to redesign the induction programme, but to no avail. Corporate HR also tried a redesign, but again it made no difference.
“Maybe it’s just a ‘millennials’ thing,” they concluded.
At the time, I was working with the company on a leadership development project and the HRD raised the turnover issue during a debrief with the executive team. I took them quickly through the scaling process.
“What’s your best hope for this?” I asked.
“Staff turnover of 14% or lower (the industry average was 27%), engaged staff and lots of promotable business analysts,” they replied.
“If your best hope is 10/10, and its opposite is zero, then where are you on the scale?
“We’re a 5/10.”
“How come you aren’t worse? Why not just a 4/10?”
“Well, we do retain a lot of people even though there are other banks trying to poach. Most people are staying – they must have their reasons. And we do have some very bright and enthusiastic people who we’ve promoted to first level supervisors. Their teams in particular seem happier and more committed than some of the other teams.”
“OK so even though you have a gap, some things must be working. What if we build off them? What if we convene teams of the most enthusiastic recent recruits, and put them under the leadership of your bright new team leaders, give them a few quid and ask them to design their own induction programme?
“Great,” said the MD. “And we’ll have some senior managers and HR business partners take on a coaching role, providing resources and oversight.”
The most successful team developed an interactive board game, in which players followed the journey of a financial trade through its various stages, getting clues from established colleagues running the actual desks involved. The players raced each other to complete the process. By the time they had finished the game they had grasped the end-to-end process and started to build the relationships they would need across the business. It was a huge hit.
The solution was far more creative, effective and cheap than senior managers expected, and when the CEO saw it, he sponsored its global roll-out including having the game materials professionally made.
Another of the ideas the team came up with was to build a website and post video interviews with staff at varying levels in the organization. As the recruits interviewed the senior managers, they also broadened out their picture of the same managers.
Notice that I’m not suggesting games and websites as a general solution to staff induction problems. That’s just one example. The point is, instead of being hypnotised by stubborn problems, to look more deeply at what’s working. That way organizations can tap into overlooked potential and resources they have already to boost performance, growth and engagement.
When you ask why things aren’t better, you’ll hear about deficits. When you ask why things aren’t worse, you’ll hear about resources.
Often the most engaging way to improve performance is to help people do it themselves.
In challenging times, starting with what works creates the resourcefulness that allows you to provide much-needed leadership.