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Organisations are powered by people so how can we make them more human?

Organisations are powered by people so how can we make them more human?

Reflections from the All About People 2016 conference

The tagline of last week’s All About People conference in Bournemouth was “When people thrive, organisations thrive too”. Andy Swann masterfully curated two days of inspiring talks and workshops that allowed us to thrive as individuals — learning, experiencing, sharing. What stood out for me was how human the conference felt. Here were some highlights for me…


Four ways to bring more art and creativity to your work

Doug Shaw opened the first day with his presentation “The Art and Soul of Better Work” and the confession “I’m so nervous.” Other speakers told me later it was such a relief to hear him say this; suddenly they felt ok about being nervous as well (in fact one audience member called him “the hero of the morning”). Doug shared his philosophy of bringing more art and soul to work telling us “we are all artists”. Jackson Pollock once said:

“Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”

For me this underscored a key theme of the conference — being self-compassionate, accepting who we are with all our flaws and embracing self-discovery. What’s that got to do with work? Well, in the same way that we now know the computer metaphor for the human brain is inapt, the machine metaphor for our organisations is equally unsatisfactory. Why? Because organisations are powered by humans and humans are messy, complicated creatures. It’s time we accept this and design our organisations to enable humans to thrive.

Fundamental needs

Mark Catchlove, Director of Insight Group EMEA at Herman Miller Ltd, shared the six fundamental needs they have discovered are universal when designing a workplace: achievement, security, purpose, status, autonomy and belonging.

The audience at All About People voted for their order of preference and the top two for our group were Purpose and Autonomy.

On purpose

Melissa Andrada, Founder and Managing Partner of Qlue, shared a very personal slide on the first morning of the conference: her plan to bring her purpose to life (see below).

She also posed a great question: how is work going to respond to business in a human way? At Qlue (and I’d argue all organisations), learning is an important value. Employees use Slack to respond to weekly bite-sized thought provokers like “what are you most proud of and why?” on Slack. One team member asked for advice about pitch anxiety and received a wealth of human, helpful responses.

Another key component of helping people live their purpose is feedback. Melissa read out a beautiful passage from the book “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott about a student struggling with how to give honest feedback about a piece of writing they felt wasn’t good. The teacher sums up their advice with this statement: “You don’t always have to chop with a sword, you can point with it as well.” Melissa calls this “heartfelt feedback”.

Kevin McDougall, Senior Internal Communications and Engagement Manager of Digital Channels at BBC, gave his presentation the title “That’s not my purpose.” In fact, Melissa wrote a brilliant post here about his talk and how for many people their purpose at work is to pay the bills or to provide for their family, not the lofty purpose of the organisation.

In Curtis James’ presentation, we were treated to a piece of immersive theatre complete with video, soundscapes and stories. For his “Beyond Work” project, Curtis shadows people to document their working lives — a sort of work ethnographer or anthropologist. He shared extracts from two men’s lives; one a bin man and the other a postal worker — two jobs that are often invisible and seldom appreciated. Both worked out of necessity rather than a grander purpose but both enjoyed a sense of pride and connection with their co-workers. What was particularly moving was that the postal worker, Andy, was also Curtis’ father. In this beautiful blog, Curtis explains:

Most of the work I do is driven by a simple purpose, to inspire people and companies to make the world of work a respectful, humane and kind place that rewards people with more than money.

Why autonomy matters

I agree with Curtis that work is, in much of our society, broken. I think one of the ways to fix it is to give back employees the fundamental human right we have in all other parts of our lives: freedom.

In one of the breakout discussions, our group discussed the question: How do we measure and unlock the value of people at work? It sparked fierce debate, particularly around whether or not we can or should “measure” people. And one person asked what was, for me, the important question: why are we assuming that the organisation rather than the individual decides what gets measured? We know that employees perform far better when they choose their own targets, so why shouldn’t they also choose the business metrics? Imagine if we put this question to employees: “What should we measure and why to ensure our business is sustainable?” and then gave them the responsibility of implementing and reviewing those measures.

Someone said to me recently that the shift we’re seeing in work is just the next phase in the emancipation of human beings. Instead of feudal lords and kings ruling their fiefdoms, today we have greedy boards and psychopathic CEOs. But if you read books like Freedom Inc and Reinventing Organisations, there are organisations who have liberated their employees — not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it makes business sense. (Here’s another blog I wrote about how freedom gets better business results.)

So in summary, what were the key messages of the All About People conference for me?

  1. When people thrive, organisations thrive
  2. Individual purpose will always trump organisational purpose so purpose becomes less about internal comms and more about supporting human needs
  3. Freedom is the ultimate motivational driver. Kevin shared this quote in his presentation which says it perfectly:
Looking at my three take-aways, they’re really just Dan Pink’s magic three words again: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose. I think autonomy is the one we neglect most in organisations and the one that’s hardest to do because it means letting go of control. More and more, though, leaders are beginning to realise that they can’t afford not to let go.