Sunday, December 26, 2010

If your company has meaning, write it down!

At first glance it may look as if most organizations do very well without having their values written down. However, this is only a surface impression, because all organizations are based on values. The most important concern how the organization views its customers and subcontractors – and how it treats its members.
– From Kolindkuren, by Lars Kolind (English version)

Lars Kolind was CEO of Oticon, a formerly successful manufacturer of hearing aids. The company eventually became a victim of its own success, and went into a seemingly unstoppable downwards spiral. Lars Kolind reorganized the company radically, turning traditional views about how a company should work on its head. His book, Kolindkuren, is a great example of a corporate guide: It is about meaning and values, yet contains a lot of practical advice useful to everyone.

The ability to care and play nice is becoming an increasingly important success factor for business organizations. The reason is simple: The Internet has enabled customers to communicate.
Twenty years ago, dissatisfied customers rarely could or did get in touch with each other. Today, it’s easy. If a customer is dissatisfied, she may tweet or blog, or just look for other dissatisfied customers, and connecting is easy.
Of course, other groups can connect just as easily, for example employees, ex-employees, and sub-contractors. And all these groups will cross-connect, and share information with each other.
For a traditional we-are-all-about-short-term-profits-for-our-shareholders company the environment looks more and more like a PR mine-field. When these organizations attempt to take control over the situation, they almost inevitably make it worse. 
On the other hand, a company that shows genuine care, and behaves responsibly towards not just customers, but towards everyone it interacts with, has got the same factor, easy communications, working for them. When people like what you do, they will talk about it, and the word will spread.
People will like what you do, if what you do has meaning. Assuming that you are a high level executive, ideally a CEO or equivalent, and you want your organization to stand for something, what do you do? I am going to assume that you belong to the select group of high level executives who are prepared to do battle for their beliefs.
Ricardo Semler's Semco is arguably the world leader in management and leadership innovation. Semler is a great writer, but for the purpose of this article, one of the appendices is the most interesting part of the book. It contains a corporate guide written in the form of a comic strip. Easy to understand, and the focus is on practical behaviors.
You do need to spread your beliefs and values throughout the organization. An important part of this is direct interaction: You must behave in a manner consistent with your values and principles in your daily work.
Unfortunately, if your organization is larger than just a handful of people, you can't spend as much time with everyone in your company as you need. Still, there are lots of things you can do. For example, you can make sure that the people you do meet frequently do share the organizations goal and values. That is important, but it is probably not enough. You need something that allows you to communicate more directly with the people in your organization.
For starters, I’d suggest that you write the meaning, values, principles, and desired behaviors down!
Writing your ideas down is one of the best ways to share them. You do not need to write a best-seller like Sir Richard Branson, or Ricardo Semler, but you should create something that will inspire the members of your organization.
Most corporate manuals are abominable: Command & Control style do-this and don’t-do-that lists. They are boring, and, all to often, insulting to the people who are supposed to read them (but usually don’t). They do of course tell the few people who actually read them about company principles and values. It is usually not the story top management intended to tell.
Givers Gain by Dr. Ivan Meisner explains the basic philosophy of Business Network International, BNI, and tells entertaining stories about how BNI evolved to be the world's largest business referral network. Every new BNI member gets a copy of the book.
Good corporate guides are quite different. They speak about the meaning of the company, the difference it wants to do in the world. They speak about the values of the organization, and how to apply them. In particular, they tell stories about how to apply the organizational values in difficult situations. Such a guide says: this is what we believe, and this is how we live up to it when the going gets tough!
Here is a simple test for a corporate guide: Is the guide something that you yourself want to go back and read now and then? If it isn’t, throw it out! Why inflict something on other people that you do not like to read yourself?
Dave Stewart and Mark Simmons wrote The Business Playground partially to inspire other business people to dare be more creative, and partially to show off their company Weapons of Mass Entertainment, and the creative abilities that power it.
A guide that uses real life examples can be particularly powerful: When Anna found herself in [a particularly difficult situation] she did [solution consistent with organizational values].
In order to do that you need to:
  • Find stories that are applicable and true, preferably in your own organization. However, if you are faced with a dearth of engaging stories, it is better to go for true stories from outside your organization than to invent stories about people in the organization. Writing fiction, as fiction, is OK, but trying to pass fiction off as something that really happened is a no-no. First of all, it is dishonest. Second, you’ll get caught. The first reason ought to be enough.
  • Write the stuff down! I am using write a bit loosely. You could make a set of videocasts, or presentations. (No bullet points! 99% of corporate presentations are c**p. If you present about this, make sure you are in the remaining 1%. Your audience deserves it.) If you write a book, make it available in both print and eBook formats. Print-On-Demand makes it really cheap to print good quality books. Make eBooks for the convenience of the reader, not because you are cheap. Believe me, readers can tell the difference!
The Virgin Group is a very large business organization. Sir Richard Branson writes to ensure that the company values remain strong throughout the organization. And he does it well, in a very entertaining manner.
Here is an important bit: If you bring in a consultant, like me, to create a corporate guide, make sure the project is still by people in your organization, for people in your organization. When the project is done, there must be people in your organization who can say, with pride: We made this!
If you happen to be a CEO, you might think “Great idea, but I can’t write a book to save my life, and I can barely videotape my children’s birthdays.” This may be true, but so what? You can still collaborate with with a writer/editor, and a videocast director.
If you have something to contribute, do it! I wrote Tempo! to be the guide I wish I had read before starting my own business seventeen years ago. It was a lot of work, but seeing Tempo! in print made it well worth the effort. Now, of course, I want to write more...
The only reason for not writing down the reason for a company to exist is if there is no reason for the company to exist!
Otherwise, in one way or another, you should make sure everyone knows what makes your organization special. It is well worth the effort.

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