The space beneath the stairs is not usually considered a place of beauty or art, indeed it’s not traditionally given the time of day – more used to languishing in the role of keeper of the vacuum and Harry Potter; but for those in the people management business it’s an area from which a lot can be learnt.
And if it weren’t for artist Rachel Whitehead it probably would have stayed that way. For her gift is to turn unusual and forgotten places into pieces of art, making sculptures from those places in our world that exist but we fail to see.
It is a testament to Charles Handy’s thinking therefore that he draws a parallel between Whitehead’s work and the challenge of UK plc today.
Speaking at the Hay Group’s leadership conference held this week, he drew on the correlation between the somewhat frightening task of re-awakening our passion to innovate and change, seeing the space beneath the stairs and success.
And change is a subject that I keep returning to in Editor’s Comment for it is something that has been much talked about of late. Even back in October, HR guru Gary Hamel picked up the gauntlet saying at the CIPD’s annual conference:
“Success has never been more fragile and as change accelerates we are becoming more ignorant.”
The yawning realisation, he said, is that many businesses don’t wake up to what is happening around them until it is too late, profits dip and customers are lost before action is taken.
Something I’m sure Handy would agree with. So how can organisations ensure that they get the most from their workers, that the pot of innovation keeps bubbling and ideas are thrashed around and seriously considered?
Well according to Handy it’s all to down to doughnuts.
Take your average doughnut, at its core is an area injected with jam, surrounded by an outer, soft ring – the dough. The jam is that area of our responsibilities as an employee that we are expected to do – the mere survival stuff if we’re not to get the sack.
The outer ring is the area surrounding our job that we could get away with not doing, the bits not on the job description, but the stuff that differentiates the ordinary from the great.
And differentiation comes from innovation, change and creativity, after all anyone can follow a manual or a job description with the right skills in place.
If you start to get complacent you need to do something new.
Something that the 29 individuals in Handy’s latest book The New Alchemists took to heart. In this collection of short life-stories, the metaphorical, not literal alchemists show us just how it is done.
A collection of entrepreneurs who, ‘created something significant out of nothing or turned the equivalent of base metal into a kind of gold.’
People who ‘saw the space beneath the stairs’ and acted on it. And according to Handy there are two types of alchemists:
- 1. Those mad men who have crazy ideas but can’t put them into practice. They are impossible to live with but need organisations to survive – flies that need elephants and;
- 2. Portfolio people – characters with more then one dimension like John McLaren, a hugely successful banker but one that was not comfortable in his own skin and who in his spare time found the drive to create and manage an international music competition and later, write a novel that was to become a best-seller.
For McLaren is one of those classically gifted people whose organisation would never let him breathe or have sufficient holidays to pursue his dreams and in due course a banker’s life was not enough and he left. The challenge then says Handy is to create organisations that allow creativity to flourish not be stifled.
But as Emmanuel Gobillot of the Hay Group pointed out, self-actualisation is not something that everyone aspires to.
Henry Ford once said: “Why is it that when I ask for a pair of hands I get a brain attached?’ and this really is the point. Indeed in the Industrial Revolution doing your job was all that was expected and in the economic climate of the time it was all that was needed. Today, that is no longer the case.
As Gobillot points out we are now living in a world where, “Customers have gone weird, people will now buy a £40,000 car as an accessory for their iPod.”
Controlling customers has long gone. So why should we try and control workers? Indeed. But if the climate is not right then none of this matters.
Professor, Richard Boyatzis believes that most leaders are ineffective, ‘Sucking the life-force from workers, rather like the Dementors in Harry Potter.’
If we’re working in an environment with ineffective leaders we’re working in a stress vacuum and stress is not conducive to innovation or creativity – it suppresses it and kills our brain cells.
And it’s no good just benchmarking, because according to Kjell Nordstrom, author of Karaoke Capitalism it’s no more then copying – so the answer, well according to Handy, having Friday’s off might work.
Google should know they allow their staff to spend 20% of their working time following their own pursuits and if their profits are anything to go by it certainly hasn’t harmed them. It whole-heartedly gets my vote and even if the doughnut theory doesn’t get you going we should at least thank Handy for championing the ‘Freedom Friday’ cause!