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Sweet Reflections

Brett Will, et al.


This article is written with over 42 000 co-authors from 4 different continents and over 15 years… It is with sincere regret that I have reduced this extraordinary contribution of insight, talents and vulnerability to ‘et al’. Those who know me as a quasi-academic, know that I am passionate about knowledge-sharing and learning; thus, I am a little sheepish that this is my first article on LinkedIn. As the saying goes, ‘those who can’t do (write a blog), teach’ and, well, I teach a lot. 


In 2003, myself and two colleagues conducted spans of research and what was seemingly an endless petri-dish to craft a business simulation that mimicked the dysfunctionality that frequented our briefs from clients. Our mission was to deviate from exclusive horizontal and competency-based andragogy (the way that adults learn) to include vertical competencies, through experiential learning.


The fruits of our efforts are now known as Brett’s Chocolate Factory, whereby delegates walk into a dysfunctional prescriptive business operation with the objective to beat the standing record of chocolate packets produced for underserved schools. In the second round, delegates are provided with the freedom to break all of the rules (quality, health & safety T’s and C’s apply).


We conclude with a debrief- and it is here, with my 42 000 co-authors, that I share a selection of the most pertinent themes that have emerged over 15 years, with the consensus that 90% of them are most likely in your work environment. 


Accountability Quotient


Given the number of times that this word crops up in meetings and in leadership forums, it may be foreseen that the first theme is ‘accountability’. For reference sake, I distinguish accountability as taking ownership of an outcome and responsibility as ownership of the completion of a task. It is interesting to observe how groups who excel are pleasantly surprised at how naturally the team is able to work together towards a common objective; questioning how their natural proclivity is imposed by ill-considered metrics and work structures that promote silo-mentality in their work environments.

On the contrary, teams who perform poorly score in the lower ratings on what I term the ‘accountability quotient’, whereby ‘somebody needs to do this, somebody should be doing that’ are frequent and whoever is called, ‘somebody’ is a very busy person! This is particularly prevalent in groups where the participants are at the same management level. On further exploration as to why, the commentary is often along the lines of the difficulty to have courageous conversations in the context of work and instead of holding others accountable, the culture often encourages blame.


Teams who outstrip, outperform and outproduce adopt collective ownership to the outcome; they exhibit the ability to collaborate with one another through conversation, check-in for understanding and actively face the brutal facts. There is a clear distinction between teams who compromise the target of beating the record to cater for the way in which they are operating and those who change the way in which they do things to be accountable to their original objective.


In this unfamiliar environment, leaders are confronted with the choice to lead or follow. Those who struggle when not in a position of control report that their natural proclivity is to disengage and focus on smaller tasks; they question if this is perhaps a tendency that plays out as micro-management and responsibility opposed to broader accountability, in their respective places of work. The most successful leaders in the simulation, define what their leadership philosophy is and demonstrate how one is accountable to the group and one another, they are deliberate in spending time on this.

Below is a summary of some of the questions or insights that arise when reflecting on one’s work environment:


  • Do we have a shared value, purpose and objective? Is it clear to all of us how this is incorporated into the strategy? Do we actually understand what we are collectively accountable for?

  • Does our culture promote accountability? If so, are we accountable to the broader organisation or accountable to our respective business unit or performance measures?

  • As a leader, it’s not just a question of how well you lead, but also knowing when to follow. Do we treat leadership as a responsibility? If we were to view leadership as taking ownership of an outcome, would we be more likely to step back and let our team lead when they may be stronger in specific projects?


Culture


The second theme is culture; just because you didn’t aim for it- it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Far too often the best of intentions contributes to dysfunctional patterns and / or habits. It is often easier to deal with the ‘hard’, tangible and visible factors of business; this means that less time is dedicated to the ‘softer’ issues like; organisational climate, recognition, acknowledgement, celebration and inclusion. The ‘hard’ things are easy, and the ‘soft’ things are hard, as they often involve people and human behaviour.

High-performing teams dedicated time to a culture of design, opposed to a culture of consequence. Their reflections revealed they found work to be a continuous balancing act to strike an equitable balance between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ components of the business. There is great difficulty in trying to effectively navigate the interplay between achieving objectives and addressing ‘softer’ issues, especially when there isn’t a proportionate measurement of the two. Organisations which are purported to have awesome cultures, almost always had a purpose-driven value proposition, deliberate attention to culture and aligned the broader system, with strong relationships internally and externally. 

Some questions and insights:


  • How deliberate and frequently do we look at culture and climate, authentically, and not as an annual tick-box exercise for an audit? Do we actually put it on our agendas and do something about it? Will culture always come second to operational and financial demands?

  • What is our hand in creating or perpetuating a culture of blame and fear? Do we really trust people to afford them autonomy and decision rights? When there are mistakes, do we overreact so that they will never challenge again? Do we not want to be challenged?

  • Are we geared to only see what is wrong? Are we providing equal attention to what is going well? What would happen if we caught someone doing something right?

  • Have we created a vortex of our own issues and insecurities, that we can’t see the wood from the trees? Are we naval-gazing to our own detriment or are we so client-focused that we are overlooking our people? How do we strike a balance so that we know which levers to pull for the results that we are looking for?


When did we stop learning?


I draw from Dee Hock to articulate this best, ‘the difficulty is not how to get new innovative thoughts into our minds, but how to get the old ones out’. Most teams find themselves launching into the second round, knowing that the first round was designed to be dysfunctional, choosing to replicate the dysfunctionality- but faster. Successful teams were able to temper their sense of urgency, knowing when to pause, reflect and reset with purpose. These teams face the brutal facts, operate from a clean slate and embrace what they don’t know. They chose to reach out for help or onboard strength, admitting where they were falling short.


Their approach to the factory was a continuous learning experiment, figuring out what did and did not work quickly, consistently finding ways and means to further refine their operations. They demonstrated the curiosity and courage to step back and practice deep reflection, evaluating what could be improved in the internal and external environments. One of the record-breaking teams took this so far as to continuously rotate roles up and down the value-chain to appreciate the systemic nature of their operation. Most reports are that one adapts opposed to learns within the organisations that they work for, as the risk of failure (which we acknowledge to our kids is part and parcel of learning) is too great and often a career-ending move. 

Some questions and insights:


  • Do we allow people to learn or do we inadvertently make them adapt? Do we allow people to make a mistake? If we made several mistakes ourselves when learning to drive, why do we only let it happen once when it’s someone else?

  • Do we role model how to learn from failure or do we role model how to cover them up? Does this make it inevitable that failures will be dressed up as successes and reside in our businesses for longer than what they ought to? Could we not learn from it and fail fast quickly, using the learning to design something more effective? 

  • Are we consciously creating learning as a core capability? Do we value execution in the same way that we value enquiry?


Innovation


Innovation is almost a mantra across organisations, consistently posing as a strategic objective and strategy; however, what we have learnt in these intimate debriefings is that entrepreneurship and innovation is everything we want, until it happens. In our debriefs, there are often comments of the volume of complaints that there are with regards to the organisation practicing innovation when bureaucracy is ever present; yet, when given the opportunity to innovate how little they opt-in and choose to exercise it. They question whether bureaucracy is an excuse or if, indeed, it is a hiding place. There is a conflict between the process of innovation and the processes of traditional business, but the measurement is the same for both.

Some questions and insights:


  • How is it possible to authentically engage in innovation when we operate in a culture of blame and we don’t have a learning organisation?

  • Do we authentically want to engage in innovation, or do we want other people to do it? Is it something that we pay more attention to when times are really good or bad? Are we then desperate to make it work, even when we know that success rates are low?

  • Is our business geared for innovation or do we use traditional hires, policies and metrics to entertain it? Do we really understand what innovation is, what it requires and how we can benefit from it?


Next Steps


There is so much happening in this world that we live in and it’s taking place faster than the time required for us to become experts. Organisations are trying to balance legacy issues, while scrambling to become future-fit under the consistent threat of being disrupted. So, while Brett’s Chocolate Factory is just a simulation, I have spent enough time in boardrooms consulting, meetings and conducting culture audits to know that much of this is very relevant in the real-world.


There are so many other items that could be included in this article; however, should an organisation be able to demonstrate shared accountability to a common objective, opposed to being responsible for executing a business units’ tasks… should we be deliberate in crafting a culture without fear or blame… should we start living a learning philosophy… innovation and the reduction of hygiene factors is sure to follow. 



Business is actually pretty simple, we create products or services and we sell them for more than what we paid for, while managing the money. The things which complicate it are often not the things that we drive, but the things that we overlook and become consequential truths.

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