| making 'People' work

To have meaningful work that enables our independence and to live with dignity should be a basic human right

Month: March, 2014

#encompassproject – bring on the community

It’s a risky topic, ‘strategic communication’.  Too many times we have experienced the rounds of ‘strategic communication’ that ends up being an impenetrable garble of consultant-speak or heartily expounded calls to arms to achieve goals that bear no resemblance to the daily work of most of the audience.

Strategic communication is an intricate process of masterfully breaking down an agenda to turn it into messages that are ‘pushed’ out through a delivery system that will result in people taking a particular course of desired action but when it comes to internal communications many organisations seem to spend most of their efforts on the higher-up agenda and expectations of changed behaviour.  Far less effort is spent on breaking down the agenda so that the messages are relevant to the different audiences, and on devising delivery systems that enhance the message and its acceptance.  For instance it is invariably assumed that the dissemination of information should be top-down and that emails or group meetings are the best forums..

You may have seen a version of this joke before:

Memo from CEO to General Manager:

Today at 11 o’clock there will be a total eclipse of the sun. This is when the sun disappears behind the moon for two minutes. As this is something that cannot be seen every day, time will be allowed for employees to view the eclipse in the car park. Staff should meet in the car park at ten to eleven, when I will deliver a short speech introducing the eclipse, and giving some background information. Safety goggles will be made available at a small cost.

Memo from General Manager to Department Manager:

Today at ten to eleven, all staff should meet in the car park. This will be followed by a total eclipse of the sun, which will disappear for two minutes. For a moderate cost, this will be made safe with goggles. The CEO will deliver a short speech beforehand to give us all some background information. This is not something that can be seen every day.

Memo from Department Manager to Supervisor:

The CEO will today deliver a short speech before the sun disappears for two minutes in an eclipse. This is something that cannot be seen every day, so staff will meet in the car park at ten or eleven. This will be safe, if you pay a moderate cost.

Memo From Supervisor to Team Leader:

Ten or eleven staff are to go to the car park, where the CEO will make the sun disappear for two minutes. This doesn’t happen every day. It will be safe, but it will cost you.

Memo from Team Leader to Employees:

Some staff will go to the car park today to see the CEO disappear. It is a pity this doesn’t happen every day.

The word ‘communication’ is derived from the Latin noun communicatio , which meant a sharing or imparting.  ‘Communicatio’ descended from ‘communis’ (common, public), the same root word from which comes ‘communitatem’, Latin for community, society, fellowship.

As community-building is at the heart of the #encompassproject the strategic communication program needs to achieve the essential meaning of the word in its purest form: mutual exchanges between people listening and speaking.  In today’s world this is a far easier objective – at least technically.  The profusion of low or no cost software platforms provides the means by which Encompass Community Services could develop its very own television ‘channel’: Encompass TV.

Encompass TV will be video content created for and by the Encompass Community.  Whether the content originates from management, from the news, from staff, clients, families or the broader community its purpose is not to tell but to engage.  A small team has been working on content for its inaugural launch this Thursday March 27.  I can’t wait to post a link from this blog so everyone can see it!

I think they should call the channel enTV – it has a certain ring!


#encompassproject – taking pole position

I love my job. I love the pay!
I love it more and more each day.
I love my boss, he is the best!
I love his boss and all the rest.

I love my office and its location. I hate to have to go on vacation.
I love my furniture, drab and grey, and piles of paper that grow each day!
I think my job is swell, there’s nothing else I love so well.
I love to work among my peers, I love their leers, and jeers, and sneers.
I love my computer and its software; I hug it often though it won’t care.
I love each program and every file, I’d love them more if they worked a while.

I’m happy to be here. I am. I am.
I’m the happiest slave of the Firm, I am.
I love this work. I love these chores.
I love the meetings with deadly bores.
I love my job – I’ll say it again – I even love those friendly men.
Those friendly men who’ve come today, in clean white coats to take me away!!!!!

Dr. Seuss

Job-to job transitions (job mobility) has been increasing steadily since the 1980s when any remaining expectations that jobs were ‘for life’ were definitively put to bed.  Firms needed to appease stakeholders far more demanding than employees and a flexible workforce was key to achieving many bottom line results.  At the same time, workers were learning it was better to be loyal to their careers rather than their employers.  The position description, already a fixture in organisations for managing tasks and efficiency, garnered even more attention as the focal point for employment negotiations.

Workers use position descriptions as career markers, as a way to validate their “achievements”.  It is a fairly well accepted fact that workers leave bosses not companies.  It is equally true that workers accept positions, not join companies.  How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m looking for that next step up.”  Or, “Having that experience will look great on my résumé.”  Or, “If I took that job it would be going backwards.”  Context – the environment in which the job is actually performed – is often ignored.  Is it really better to be a manager with the title but no real authority than a ‘worker’ with autonomy?  It is a valuable test to undertake with all your workers: are they committed to their position, its title, status, perks and place in the hierarchy or, are they committed to the job – focusing on that which they can best contribute?

Of course this suits companies.  Having accepted a position with all the attendant perks and status, the worker gives the company licence to use the position descriptions as a control mechanism.  Quid pro quo.  With a position description the company can filter out the sort of people they don’t want to join their firm and control the remuneration, scope and prospects of the person within the firm.

There would be very few organisations and advisors that would say position descriptions are not compulsory; a critical tool to ensure that workers know exactly what is expected of them and protects them in case of disputes.  The fact is, the culture and norms in the workplace are far more effective at communicating what is expected and what is acceptable than any impersonal, bland statement.  However, doing away with position descriptions needs trust to replace control.  There are not enough organisations that are prepared to make that switch.

Disability service providers that assist their clients seek work know first hand the almost insurmountable barriers that position descriptions put up for the disabled to secure paid employment.  Many with disabilities (but others generally as well) want to work so they can do something they like, be in a collegiate environment, and earn a living.  They may be happy to make coffee and tea without being given a title like “Hot Beverage Technician” that has several potential career paths available depending on the number of key result areas in which they can demonstrate competence.  Knowing this, disability service providers should take the lead in an organisational structure that works on ‘person descriptions’.

A person description is an expectation of performance and accountability based on what a person is able to do (different to a person specification in which a company describes the ideal person they want to hire for a position).  As work becomes increasingly knowledge-based rather than task-based working to a person’s abilities will have an increasingly greater impact on the organisation’s bottom line.

This is why Encompass Community Services will review its positions and titles as part of the #encompassproject.  Elaine Robb, Encompass CEO, has calculated as an unacceptable loss to the organisation the work that is not being done, the ideas not being explored, the cooperation not had, the opportunities not being exploited because people are doing their positions rather than their most suited jobs.  The removal of position titles in favour of projects and priorities is not new.  Goretex uses such a structure, they call a ‘lattice structure’.  Holacracy, referring to distributed authority to self-organising teams, is becoming slowly more accepted.  Ricardo Semler wrote about the Semco experience in the book Maverick! The success story behind the world’s most unusual workplace.

Gallup, the global performance management consulting and research company, has found that organisations that reinforce people’s strengths enjoy six times higher levels of employee engagement than those that force ‘performance gap’ improvements.  Employees are also more likely to experience higher feelings of accomplishment and well-being and less likely to experience job stress.

Discussions are currently under way with Encompass on the structure and positions.  I am looking forward to sharing the results of these discussions in the coming weeks.  I hope also be able to provide details on some results we are seeing even so early in the process.

This week I’ll give the last word to Elaine who shared this message in the Encompass Autumn 2014 Newsletter (see the full newsletter here):

Message from the CEO

Some of you may have heard that Encompass is going through a revolution, namely the #encompassproject. The main goal of this project is for Encompass to get in front of the ever changing environment in which Encompass and similar organisations operate. There will be regular updates in this newsletter, so watch this space. This revolution in our operational thinking means there will be more exciting and challenging opportunities for all of the people at Encompass – Staff, Clients, Volunteers, Board members, Supporters, Customers, Suppliers, Contractors and everyone who wants to assist us in some way.

Encompass will continue to offer an array of services and programs and these will be enhanced by the #encompassproject. We are offering more opportunities and better options for people with disabilities and as a result, their contributions will make the world a better place for everyone! Encompass will no longer be a “Encompass Community Services Organisation” but rather “Encompass Community”. In some ways, I already think of Encompass in that way.

The revolution will not happen in a day! We are taking small steps to reach big goals. In the next few months you may see some changes at Encompass. Keep in mind that these changes are there to better our organisation and we need your help and support for this to succeed!

We talk about followers on Facebook or Twitter, and perhaps this will be the real life version of this – where government agencies, service providers, businesses and people follow us as a real example of community working at its best. I am excited by our future as we continue to evolve and I hope you are too.

#encompassproject – making change happen

Working hard at Encompass

Working hard at Encompass

All organisations, no matter how big, how profitable, how long established, how so motivated or how managed, have one thing in common: the desire for change.

Organisational change is defined as the changes an organisation makes to its working methods or aims in order to deal with new situations.  Under this definition even an organisation that wishes to maintain status quo must engage in change as the environments in which it operates constantly evolve.  This underpins the need for organisations to have access to more expertise that their boards, C-level executives, internal and external consultants and professional advisors provide.  The increasing pace and complexity of change in today’s world means that these advisors are more critical to the organisation than ever.  (The business coaching industry has been estimated to be the fastest growing industry globally behind IT.)  It would not be too hard to make the case that if it were not for the organisation’s obligation to manage change, few of its directors, executives and advisors would have much of a role to play at all.

With the pressures on organisations to perform and the need to continuously evolve, best practice is no longer enough.  Its basis is learning from past practice.  As global consulting firm BCG senior partner and managing director, Roselinde Torres, says in her 2013 TED Talk, “Great leaders are not head-down. They see around corners, shaping their future, not just reacting to it.”

Most organisations under-estimate the amount of change they need to be actively managing.  In our experience most leaders over-estimate their commitment to change and over-estimate their ability to lead change.  It is not unheard of for us to leave a consultation with the meeting effectively summed up as, “Help us improve but we don’t want to do anything differently.”  With all due respect to trainers and human resources specialists, a vast amount of training takes place so that organisations can shift the burden of change down to line staff.

Getting people in organisations to change has been the focus of intense examination and analysis for decades, but it usually boils down to the role of leaders in overcoming peoples’ fear of change.  Some of this fear comes from the unknown, such as What will happen to my job, if x takes place?”  Or, “I’ve spent so much time building this system/team/practice, I must protect my contribution.”  Some comes from an anticipated loss, “I am good at doing y so if I stop doing it, I will lose respect/credibility/status.”  Some of the fear is reinforced by the relationships we have formed – we seek shelter in the groups where we feel understood.

Encompass Community Services has set itself a mammoth goal: to transform itself from a mechanistic organisation to a community-centric one.  This is what the #encompassproject is about.  Such an all-encompassing task is overwhelming.  Where do you start?  How do you coordinate the moves that need to be made across the organisation?


Our approach to change is based on three simple principles.

  1. Focus.  Change without a single, clear and emphatic agenda becomes quickly disjointed.  Human nature is such that people need reasons.  When these are not clear one of two things will happen: 1) they work the change into existing practice; or 2) they create their own explanation.  These imputed explanations may not always be flattering, but worse they can take hold and form a negative sub-culture.
  2. Move fast. Organisations tend to drag their feet with change.  It gives them the illusion of control.  In reality it either creates the gaps where resistance can take hold, or people lose the sense of importance of the change.  Putting a timeline on change forces you to make a choice about where you will start and to do something.  It also allows failure – if it happens – to happen quickly and before people feel committed to sticking to something because of the time and effort invested, even if it is not working.
  3. Over-communicate.  In studies where managers are asked how well they believe they communicate, inevitably when compared to their employees’ responses, they do not do as well as they think they do.  The only way to fix this is to over-communicate.  Introducing Encompass TV (more in next week’s blog).

While change is all about creating a desired future, many organisations use it to try to repair an imperfect past.  The only thing we can change is the here and now.  The changes at Encompass will begin with the here and now of the organisation structure.  The structure is most visibly recognised by the titles that label the positions its employees hold.  Our first task is to ensure the positions that give employees their status and recognition in the organisation do not become the walls that limit their potential.

It is my privilege to help Encompass through this forthcoming change program.  Please share your suggestions and questions about the project ahead in the comments section.

#encompassproject – crafting the organisation

Structure follows strategy.

So said Harvard Business School’s Alfred Chandler in his 1977 book, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Once a strategy has been decided, the organisational structure should be designed to optimise the way resources are arranged, supported by the policies and systems that specify how the organisation should operate, and managed in line with the strategic intent.  In this way, Chandler argues, organisations are well-placed to serve their target market, differentiate their offerings and respond to market forces.

Few organisation are structured other than as a top-down, pyramid-shaped hierarchy with which we are so familiar.  This was the organisational design that effectively capitalised on the principles of scientific management which advocated the standardisation of production, mechanising labour through jobs designed to match stages of the production process, and separating ‘thinkers’ from ‘doers’.  The economic boom of early 1900s that followed the widespread adoption of this design all but guaranteed that organisations would use this structure regardless of specific strategy as the drive for profit outstripped other considerations

There were several reasons why this organisational structure so successfully achieved unprecedented levels of growth and productivity.  Mostly it had to do with mass production and the growing mass market.  When profits are driven by supply in volume, the simplest approach is to design an organisation that prioritises standardisation.  The de-skilling of the workforce in favour of jobs not only meant the ability to increase output many times over but it also enabled paying as little as possible to the people whose work was defined by tasks rather than ability.  The corporation thrived.

This top-down hierarchical structure suits perfectly the corporates that are there to serve their shareholders.  Shareholders are willing to handsomely reward a CEO they consider to be well-enough skilled to steadily grow the business and profits, able to fend off any threats to the business, and make hard decisions to protect their investment.  The enormous pay and bonus schemes are less about market rates and more about ensuring the CEO is accountable to the shareholders and their demand for returns.  With the organisation’s power and control concentrated at the CEO level, the CEO is able and authorised to use any and all justifiable means (unfortunately ‘justifiable’ doesn’t always mean ethical, responsible or in some cases even legal) to meet profit forecasts.  Reducing services, off-shore outsourcing, cost-cutting and redundancies are as much the requisite tools of trade for CEOs as spanners and wrenches are for plumbers.

But for organisations like Encompass Community Services, one that serves a purpose before a profit and where returns are not counted in dividends, a top-down hierarchy can be a liability.  Of course, if funding compliance was the measure of success, standardised process and bottom-up reporting are ideal – simply replace ‘shareholders’ with ‘funding bodies’ and ‘profits’ with ‘funding’.  As the previous post outlined, however, such an approach conflicts with Encompass’ commitment to do more for its clients than counting the hours they dealt these funded programs to those funded clients.  In reality, Encompass has been managing dual organisational systems: the formal one that complies with how funding dollars are spent; and the spiritual one that makes decisions based on the organisation’s Vision.  The dual structure has not only become too costly, but whenever parallel systems exist, there are always plenty of cracks where things can disappear.

The organisation structure was the topic of a meeting with the Encompass Board in late 2013.  Encompass needed to choose which structure it was going to support as it could no longer juggle both.  One Board member put it most succinctly, “We cannot afford not to.”    A top-down, hierarchical chain-of-command is a basic template for delivering more funding but its design is predicated on clients as a mass market and people as standardised labour.  Although many of Encompass’ counterparts – against whom Encompass competes for funding – may well be organised to maximise funding, for Encompass this option was not feasible.  Firstly, because it would have to be over CEO Elaine Robb’s dead body and secondly because it simply could not co-exist with Encompass’ Vision and Values without significant fallout in the culture of the organisation and the trust it has built with its clients.

Priorities Matrix

The Priorities Matrix used with the Board

The alternative the Encompass Board wanted has two objectives.

  1. Build a financially-sound, purpose-driven organisation;
  2. Place the organisation’s resources at the fingertips of anyone who wants to be an Encompass client or part of the community that supports them.

It would shift the Encompass model from ’employ as few as possible’ used by shareholder-driven organisations, to ’employ as many as we can afford’.  The ‘maximum profit’ paradigm would be replaced by one of ‘maximised potential’.

‘Maximised potential’ is an overused term that rarely has any real meaning.  The Encompass Board determined that it would back any necessary measure to make ‘maximised potential’ a reality.  The #encompassproject which was launched as a result of this meeting is now working to de-standardise jobs so that employees can respond to potential from:

  1. Their individual and collective abilities, ideas and willingness;
  2. Working closely with the individual and collaborative abilities, ideas and willingness of clients; and
  3. That looks for common interests and engages with the local community.

An example of how this might work in practice is a program to teach cooking skills to help clients with disabilities work towards independent living.  Typically Encompass would deliver a program to teach cooking designing it against nationally accredited criteria and balancing the contact hours that would be funded against minimum numbers of participants needed to make the program viable.  However basic, practical and healthy cooking is not just a skill needed by the disabled.  Many young people today grew up with two working parents and unlike previous generations have not learned to cook from their mothers.  Divorce rates are forcing newly single people to take on cooking responsibilities previously looked after by their spouse.  A spate of redundancies in the manufacturing sector in the local area may change the structure of the family where the previously home-staying spouse may be able to find work leaving the partner no longer employed to now look after domestic duties.  This program then could be more than using funding dollars to run a client service; it could maximise potential by tapping into changing social and demographic factors.  Perhaps private participants would be willing to pay a small fee for such a course, or a local business may subsidise costs, given the wider target market, by sponsoring the program.  The program leader may not come from the Encompass training division at all but – supported by the training team – may be the gardener, cleaner, accountant, that is, someone with the ability, ideas and willingness to contribute to Encompass in ways beyond the job.

Potential can only be realised if it has an outlet.  With an outlet, potential has the unique property of being capable of constantly regenerating – that is, of being maximised.

*Author’s note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the author reflecting her opinions and experiences and are not the views of Encompass, its Board, management or employees.

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