In the UK just now we are in the middle of the holiday season.
When I was a child I very fondly remember my summers as warm, sunny, full of friends and games and just about the best of times a boy could have.
Now as a parent, summer holidays are a logistical feat (nightmare?) as child care, holiday planning and work commitments conspire to make the whole period seem more often like an ordeal than a pleasure.
Isn?t it funny how we can all view the same world differently if we have a different perspective on it? I am always fascinated by how these everyday situations throw up contrary perceptions and how we work all the time to manage perception without even thinking about it?I also find that it is very often in these ordinary events that we can find the best clues to solving the extraordinary.
About a year ago I was hired by a well known law firm to undertake some research on what different groups within the firm felt about how the firm was doing. The firm wanted to develop a more consistent approach to internal communication, to external presentation of its values and proposition; in fact generally to improve the way it behaved as a business. My work was to help them identify the base line they had already established (on the principle that before you can navigate any journey you have to have a pretty good idea where you are starting from).
As an example of what we found, here are two statements from two people within the firm, one a partner, one a trainee.
?Communication internally isn?t good enough; we hardly get to know anything before it happens. Decisions are made in a vacuum. I just keep my head down and get on with my job?
?Communication is good. We work really hard to keep all our people informed. We don’t always agree with what happens, but at least you know why?
It isn?t a surprise to find partners and junior team members having a different view on communication; however, the very interesting fact about these two statements is that the first was made by the partner and the second by the trainee?
Interesting may be, but frankly, so what? Well, good question; the ?so what? however was to see if such a perception conundrum was repeated elsewhere and what might lie behind it.
Before I explain this however let me explain something else which lies behind a lot of my work. In all the time I have been working both as a lawyer and latterly as a consultant, I have held to two particular principles which are:
? First that the vast majority of people go to their place of work to do a good job, and
? Second, that there is no reason why one set of lawyers should be any worse than another set of lawyers at communication, leadership, management and presentation (etc)
Thus any firm or department or team has the potential to be outstanding and to be up there with the very best. The key to unlocking this potential however is to find the small things that are not working well and to fix them.
Like a golf swing, a hopeless slice will give a horrible result, but it will only need the very smallest of fine adjustments to turn such miserable consequences into much more rewarding and good looking results.
Back to my assignment?
What became apparent, signalled by the quotes I have highlighted, was a perception conundrum. On the one hand a significant group of partners feeling disconnected from their business and yet a very large body of junior staff who felt the firm was a great place to work.
I could find two reasons for their different perspectives.
The first was that the partners had for the last three years invested significantly in the firm?s infrastructure, recruiting excellent quality trainees, refurbishing their offices, investing in technology. This had obviously required some financial sacrifice on their part. The second reason was that the firm had been quite successful in this period as well and was attracting new and more important work.
Trainees saw investment in the firm, career development and a success story unfolding; partners saw more work, less money in their pockets and a disrupted office with builders and contractors everywhere.
I saw a firm on the brink of a very important breakthrough, a firm that could take very important strides forward, and a firm that could be the next big success story.
The challenge for the firm?s leadership team was to ensure that all the hard work did not start to unravel just at the point when the reward might be in sight. Key to confirming the progress made therefore was to now ensure that internally their success to date was understood, that the plan was restated and those who might be losing patience were re-energised. They were on the right path.
Change, as we all know, is never easy; leadership is never easy and well intentioned slogans to work harder and smarter are not the answer when a team is weary with effort; but insightful, empathetic and certain steps along a well communicated plan will increase the opportunity for success.
It is not the hard work which undoes good intentions; it is not having confidence that all the hard work will be worth it. This is a communication issue and it is one that persists throughout a project or a relationship ? it is one we neglect at our peril?
Finally, I have to say that in the case in point I also saw something of the conundrum I’mentioned in the opening lines of this article. The child?s perception of summer can be very different from the parents? perception of the very same summer, however good the communication!