creating a more human business (book review of “the happy manifesto”)

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I marked a few important pages…

Like it or not, the future of work is here

The future of work excites me, fascinates me, and frustrates me. Work as we know it isn’t really working anymore. Work is designed as though people are interchangeable machines instead of being designed to help people be at their absolute best. It’s designed around outdated ideas on when and where and how work MUST be done. It’s based on the (profoundly, incredibly stupid) idea that the boss is the supreme expert in all things work getting things done through apathetic, incompetent minions. We’re doing 21st century work based on ideas developed in the industrial revolution.

People aren’t cogs, people are the point. Business gets done for, through, and by people. I can’t say it enough. It’s common sense obvious. Employees are people, customers are people, vendors are people, managers are people, CEOs are people. Yet, the simple idea that designing business for people (humanizing business) leads to better results is somehow radical. Those too-crazy-for-business-school ideas exist and thrive in organizations that let them.

The thing is, we know better and it’s changing. The future of work is here, examples exist now. Companies like Zappos get attention and flak for challenging the status quo, doing things their own way, and building the company around customers and employees. So many pundits and analysts dismiss the challenges to business school models as trendy fads or unworkable if you aren’t Google, ignoring the under-the-radar examples that have been too busy succeeding for decades to be bothered to care what critics think.

One of those businesses is Happy Ltd., an IT training and e-learning company repeatedly recognized as one of the 20 best places to work in the UK, with accolades and awards from Management Today, Financial Times, and the Great Place to Work Institute. How? Henry Stewart (@happyhenry), the company’s founder, shares his not-so-secret secrets in: the happy manifesto: Make your organization a great workplace (available in free and discounted versions through Henry’s website or at amazon.com).

 

Answers right in front of me

In so many ways it’s the type of book I’ve been looking for and it has been sitting on my bookshelf for at least a year and a half. The publisher had originally asked if I’d like them to send me their catalog to see if there were any titles I’d like to read and review Of course, there’s only one answer to that question and I quickly read and enjoyed Marianne Cantwell’s Be a Free Range Human but the happy manifesto sat unread. I enjoyed and got so much out of this book that it hurts I ignored it for so long. Sigh.

“That is what this book is about. Its aim is to help you, throughout your organization, to put in place the structure to make that freedom and trust possible.” ~ Henry Stewart

The book based on the author’s 20+ years of experience running his own company based on the principles described. He writes in a clear, straightforward way and provides real-life examples. The author shows what worked, what didn’t, asks some painfully thought provoking questions, and replaces conventional business methods with approaches so radically common sense they seem counterintuitive. I’ll highlight a few here.

 

Get out of the way

Many people have observed that the best thing leaders can do to enable people to work at their best is to set clear expectations and then get out of the way. Easier said than done for most leaders. How far out of the way? How about “pre-approving” ideas by giving the team full permission to implement their proposals without the leader reviewing it? How about the leader completely removing themselves from the approval process and ensuring they don’t see (and interfere) with new ideas until they are well established? How about removing blame and creating structures that encourage innovation? How about encouraging disobedience?

“Generally I try to avoid telling people what to do but, if I do, I know there is a fair chance the member of staff will do something completely different anyway, if it seems a better way to help the customer or achieve the result that is needed.” ~ Henry Stewart

 

Create ways for employees to say “yes”

People need to know what is expected and where the boundaries are yet rules often turn into all the reasons an employee can’t help a customer or get things done. Using systems based on principles versus unyielding rules and policies can give people the freedom to solve problems and move things forward. How often do we see rules are put into place to prevent problems caused by a small percentage of people instead of helping the vast majority be at their best? On the flip side, how often do we trust expect the people doing the work to find the best ways to get the job done?

“A rule has to be obeyed. In response to a rule you are expected to suspend your judgement. A system is the best way we have found so far to do something. If any member of staff can think of a better way in the situation they are in, they are encouraged and expected to adapt the system.” ~ Henry Stewart

 

Get rid of the things getting in the way of great work

Research shows (again and again) that organizations which are great workplaces are more financially successful. Interesting then that creating a great workplace isn’t a priority and expectation for maximizing shareholder value. I’m a firm believer that the customer experience will never exceed the employee experience (I wish I knew who first said that). It makes sense yet organizations rarely focus on the employee experience.

The author shares an interesting twist on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs he refers to as “a management hierarchy of needs”. Among all the needs Workplace Safety and Comfort is at the bottom with Freedom at the top. What stands out to me is how little effort we make in organizations to meet all the levels of this hierarchy. It’s as though we meet the most basic of needs and declare it a job well done (and wonder why engagement levels are so painfully low).  AND just as Self-Actualization is unsustainable and meaningless if our basic physical needs aren’t met, trying to create Freedom at work without meeting all the other needs first is unrealistic and primed to fail.

First, are your people’s basic needs being met? Have you asked them what gets in the way of doing their job well? Second, what are you doing to engage people’s higher motivations?” ~ Henry Stewart

 

Seeing clearly

Transparency is becoming a bit of a buzzword, but how many take it to heart? How many organizations make everything available to everyone? Company financials? What would happen if everyone suddenly had the information they need to make decisions, understood why and how financial decisions are made, and those decisions were transparently exposed to all?

What about [gasp, shudder] salaries? Are your salary decisions fair, unbiased, unprejudiced, and reflective of the value a person creates for the organization? If the answer is “no” you have bigger problems than people simply knowing each other’s salaries.

 

How important is hiring at your company?

Your company has probably stated that “people are our most important asset” or some such. Sounds good, but… How big of a stand is your company willing to take on that principle? The software company Valve famously made this statement in their employee handbook: Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Nothing else comes close. It’s more important than breathing. So when you’re working on hiring – participating in an interview loop or innovating in the general area of recruiting – everything else you could be doing is stupid and should be ignored!

How important are people to your company’s success? How important is hiring on future results? What’s the cost of a bad hire? How much effort is put into training hiring managers and selection teams? It seems like so many companies are happy to have warm bodies OR hold out for perfection based on a wish list of “requirements” that is largely irrelevant to a person’s ability to do the job (e.g., requiring a degree, any degree). From my observation, few give hiring the emphasis it deserves.

Are you able to prove they have the skills and ability to do the job or does your selection process only highlight their ability to interview well? There’s a big difference between being able to talk a good game about doing the job and actually delivering. Are you able to determine how well they will enhance and support those around them?

Do you have an easy way to reach out to the most interested people whenever you have an opening (hint: a post and pray approach doesn’t count)? Do you have a ready list of people interested in working for you as soon as a position comes open or do you make everyone apply even when there isn’t a job so “they’ll be in the system”? Are you surprised when they don’t?

 

“Profits are important and necessary but not sufficient.”

He’s preaching to the choir here (What’s the Purpose of a Business?) How differently would business be organized and conducted if it were based on the idea that profits are a means, not an end? How much better would organizations be at creating profits if they had all their employees fully behind the meaning and purpose of the work they were doing?

“I’m in business to make a profit. Of course I am. But I’m also in business to make a difference. Otherwise what is the point?” ~ Henry Stewart

 

Leaders should be good at leading (for a change)

Promoting the most technically skilled people into management roles and expecting them to be immediately and naturally good at leading would be a completely unbelievable and ludicrous idea, except it’s pretty much a given. Everywhere. It’s patently ridiculous yet is The Way Things Are Done.

Running counter to this, the author’s company divides management into two functions: 1) strategy and decision making which is handled by elected department heads; and 2) supporting, challenging, and coaching which is done by coordinators. These may be the same people or may be different and employees have a say in who their leader is. It sounds weird and it completely flies in the face of the more traditional “promote the most skilled and who cares if they can manage others” approach, yet it seems to work for them.

 

And that’s really it, isn’t it?

We can argue Happy Ltd.’s approaches, ridicule them for being unfamiliar or seeming unrealistically idealistic, yet… it works for them. That doesn’t mean it will work for everyone in every situation, but I get excited because it if works in one place, it just might work in others.

So the question isn’t, Does this approach work? The question is How can I put his approach to work in my team / department / organization?

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