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Let’s agree to disagree

I’ve been watching a TV series called You Can’t Take it With You in which business guru Sir Gerry Robinson helps bring families together to write their wills. Given the differing values, priorities, perspectives and emotional sensitivity of those involved, it’s unsurprising that -- if not visible, then just below the surface -- there’s always a degree of tension or even conflict amongst family members.

What many of the individuals do -- like so many of us in the workplace -- is try to avoid that tension or conflict altogether, or simply ignore it. If we can’t say something nice, our mothers taught us, don’t say anything at all. Of course, Sir Gerry’s task is to help the families tackle these difficult challenges and decisions. Inevitably, tension or conflict becomes unavoidable, and with it the potential for it to get disagreeable or even destructive.

So what is surprising is just how often he manages to pull off a minor miracle and turn conflict into collaboration. From favouritism, to boys versus girls, to judgments about people’s lifestyles to plain old-fashioned prejudice, Sir Gerry has helped negotiate a way through them all.

The typical strategy says Sir Gerry is to avoid conflict and close down dialogue and discussion (“I’m not prepared to talk about it”). Whilst this approach appears to work for many, stubbornness and inflexibility set in. And when tensions bubble to the surface, people already convinced of the rightness of their view become increasingly polarised around conflicting positions and values. The result he says is ‘destructive conflict’, which is personal, vindictive, and a source of pain.

Other strategies include reducing tensions and stresses by one party simply accommodating the wishes of the other -- a one-sided ‘win-lose’ situation. But this simply glosses over the issue -- something Sir Gerry won’t accept. Another widely accepted means of resolving conflict is to accept that there needs to be give and take on all sides, involving a series of ‘concessions’. A ‘win-some, lose-some’ strategy.

But Sir Gerry believes that when managed properly, conflict can have many positive aspects and even bring about innovative solutions. His ‘constructive conflict’ approach works because those involved have a positive learning experience from the event and see that theirs is not a case of ‘right against wrong’ so much as ‘right against right’. By creating the conditions for each party to both speak and listen he ensures they understand both the what and the why of their differences. By opening up dialogue and sharing and assessing the reasons for the conflict, issues can be clarified which results in more possible alternatives and opportunities to solving the problem. A clear ‘win-win’ strategy.

So how do we manage conflict so that it’s a positive not a negative force? I think it starts with the simple notion that we can disagree without being disagreeable. And that we have to make it “safe” to be different,  to take opposite points of view and to disagree. When people know they can stand up and say what they believe without being castigated, guess what? They will!

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Short Attention Span? Or Just American?

February 28, 2011 at 6:00 am PST

Sony’s US-specific informational video for its NEX camera runs 2:59. It’s set solely to music.  Sony’s video for the Japanese market runs 6:58 and has technical narration throughout.  That’s just the beginning of the differences.

Sayaka Katamura and Haruna Kawamoto did a nice informal analysis of the differences that Sony perceives when selling to the US and Japanese markets in a recent post on Ishmael’s Corner.  The takeaway? The importance of localizing storytelling.

Reading this article was particularly timely as my co-workers and I are planning an inclusion & diversity event for our Asia Pacific theatre.  We held a combination in-person and Telepresence video event in January that was well attended by our North American and European geographies.  Of course, that means that it was in the middle of the night for our APAC colleagues.  Ah, the joys of a global business. Read More »

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Mind The Gap

Any number of case studies can be cited as evidence that innovation and creativity are crucial to business success. Yet results from the European Innovation Scoreboard (EIS) suggest that many countries have much to do before they can be described as ‘innovative’.

So a real problem facing European organisations is that they just can’t recruit enough of those special ‘creative’ people -- right? I’m not so sure. I’d suggest that the statistics say rather more about the way we tap into the innovation within our people than it does about any lack of potential creativity. And the real issue lies with our perception of creative thinking…

The problem can be traced back to 1981 when Professors Sperry and Ornstein told the world that human beings are of two minds. Their landmark “left brain, right brain” experiments showed that the two hemispheres of the brain are dominant in specific functions – left for logical and right for creative.

But an undeserved legacy of Sperry and Ornstein is a belief amongst the business community that ‘right-brain’ creative thinking is a gift that few of us are graced with. The reality is very different. Whilst their work showed that each side of the brain is dominant in specific functions, it also showed they are skilled in ALL functions and that analytical and creative thinking are complementary skills available to and accessible by all of us. Indeed it is simply our misconception that there is a gap between them that very often hinders our ability to be creative or innovative.

The business environment tends to perpetuate the myth that creative or innovative  thinking is for the chosen few. In our information-overloaded lives we tend to ask our people to use the logical, analytical and rational ‘left-brain’ labelled functions. And from childhood we are taught to create lists, to prioritise by numbering, to join the dots, to think ‘logically’, to focus on results, to seek an outcome, to follow the sequence, to take linear notes… the list goes on.

It’s also a fact that, for many of us, it’s not often that we are asked, allow ourselves -- or are allowed by our work situation -- to think creatively. And when we are, it’s no surprise that many of us feel that this is something out of the ordinary and perhaps beyond our grasp.

I believe that creativity and inclusion go hand-in-hand because it is flexibility and creativity that make possible inclusive ways of working. So what are inclusive ways of working? Well first and foremost it’s not everyone doing the same thing in the same way. Of course, there are behaviours that help guide our actions, but inclusion comes about through acceptance of diversity and non-conformity. If we are afraid or unable to be different, to relate our work in our own way, then we will be less able and willing to appreciate and develop the abilities of the people around us.

The challenge I’m giving myself – and you -- is to take a creative or innovative approach to situations both at work and at home.  That doesn’t just mean being different, but being different and better……so let’s mind the gap

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Can manners make us more innovative?

  • The top meeting etiquette blunder is multi-tasking whilst in face-to-face meetings.

As discussed in my previous post “What will your working environment look like in 10 years?” the business environment is set to change rapidly in the coming years. Many people have already seen some changes in their workplaces with technology such as WebEx and TelePresence enabling virtual workplaces. There are many financial, business and environmental benefits to these technologies, but one of the side-effects that seem to be appearing is bad business etiquette. Read More »

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Vive la difference!

I was listening to the radio the other week and heard a piece that made me stop and think about the judgments we make.  A British journalist was talking about his experiences of living in Paris for the last 14 years.

He described several of his favourite areas of the city, which despite being immediately adjacent to the tourist hotspots, were passed by or missed by visitors.  Other favourites were unique and beautiful areas in the suburbs – unfairly referred to as the ‘dreaded Banlieues’ – that were largely avoided by Parisians themselves despite being within easy reach.

He described visiting each of them as stepping into ‘a completely different world’. And it was that phrase in particular that made me stop and think. Is it perhaps the fear of choosing a different route that kept the tourists from straying from the familiar and well-worn routes? Are ‘labels’ and preconceptions about the suburbs keeping the Parisians in their comfort zones?

It struck him – and me too -- that tourists and Parisians alike could be missing out on the most wonderful experiences by not opening their minds to the possibility of stepping outside their comfort zone, and made me question some of my own perceptions preconceptions of areas of I wouldn’t choose to visit.

This got me thinking about how much we all rely on our ‘comfort zones’ whilst at work. To illustrate my point, consider how many of the thousands of decisions made every day are precisely defined in a policy or procedures manual…  I’d guess that the answer is relatively few. So what is it that ‘guides’ us? A large part of the answer must be our values – ‘how we do things around here’. But I also suspect that our ‘comfort zones’ have a strong influence.  These are the things that help us intuitively sense what direction we will “lean” when we make each decision.

So whether it’s how we run meetings and how we recruit, or who we invite to meetings and who we recruit, is the lure of the familiar, the easy, and the ‘accepted’ holding us back at times? Do we overlook and even avoid those ‘different worlds’?  Do we forget that different people – whether it’s different ages, gender, ethnicity, experiences, values, knowledge or whatever -- bring different perspectives, values and thinking to the table.

Of course, I understand there are often good reasons for sticking with what’s familiar to us. It’s usually easier and doing so can stop us from doing something stupid or reckless for example. But I believe there are equally good reasons for discovering the different, for moving out of our comfort zone, extending ourselves and challenging our own preconceptions.  Because not doing so might stop us from experiencing those new, different and at times better views. And any organisation that doesn’t push itself to experience these things will limit its capacity for innovation.

I’m not advocating that we throw caution to the wind, just that we push ourselves to consider le different as an opportunity, and not a threat.

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