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Make no mistake, our diversity, our biggest asset

By -JENNY LUESBY | April 30th 2013


Management schools are big business, but few have given attention to ‘what management is all about’ that Henley School of Management devoted to a ten-year study on how teams succeed.

Across literally hundreds of groups, the school analysed the defining characteristics of teams that successfully completed tasks.  Shockingly, it found that most teams failed. But it did identify the winning formula of those that succeeded — as a mix of roles played by different members.

The literature on these ‘Belbin’ roles has since been used worldwide, built around appealing characterisations, like ‘plants’ for creative types, and ‘technical specialists’, ‘shapers’ and ‘completer/finishers’.

However, a gap in the space taken up by Henley’s model is how these balanced teams come to be, and what stops them from taking shape in all the many organisations that fail.

As it is, more than 90 per cent of all ventures fail. Most go down in their first three years. But even for the longer lived, the chances of continuing to exist get ever smaller. A full third of the early-day survivors go down following major changes in leadership or ownership, while most of the rest move into a slow decline borne of repetitive failure and incremental deterioration.

The net result is a business space where very few organisations reach 60 years old — the global average lifespan for a business is just 12 years old and those which continue to thrive and grow after their centennial are very rare.

Indeed, if we visited another planet and found a track record of quite such universal failure, we would wonder what the aliens’ minds were on, to keep circling forever and ever to certain crashes. Yet in our own world, we defy the statistics, the years of gathering facts on failure in every type of business from Fortune 500s to micro-ventures, and believe that whichever company we are with will somehow make it anyway.

It was a strangeness of contradiction that first struck me within my very first business, which was an academic bookshop on a college campus. As I took over, the world of recommended textbooks was already changing. The photocopier had arrived. Later, came the computer, soft copies and the Internet: Wikipedia and Google.

Students’ budgets were tightening. Sharing and second-hand books were becoming a needs-must.

Our survival as a business required a major repositioning.

In the decades since, I have seen hardly any sector that has sailed onwards untouched by such seismic shifts. We all focus on technology as transformatory, but it isn’t just about the latest tablet: education has changed, tourism has changed, energy is changing, and even horticulture has changed profoundly. Nowadays, our competitor is in Chile, or Sri Lanka, or Russia or China.

Yet very few organisations adapt. Because adapting requires successful task completion — we can’t just run along on the old grooves — and that takes us back to why most teams fail.  For what is it that, so universally, stops us ‘pulling together’ in achieving change?

Those no-go zones

A first base is the connection we all have with the organisation — another matter of deep study in recent decades. Not surprisingly, we don’t any of us get to the ‘my company, my life’ point within organisations that treat us badly.

And without that connection, and the responsibility carried by each of us for the performance of the whole, the whole underperforms. For change is effort, and effort isn’t borne of disillusion and disconnection.

But providing crèches and high salaries isn’t the key to employee loyalty — again, more studies, and absolutely conclusive ones.

The key is being respected, and this is where we just can’t seem to cut it out here in the private sector.

We don’t respect each other, and listen. We diminish, dismiss: indeed I heard a beauty just last week from one manager — classed as a ‘no-go’ in every school of relationship counseling everywhere — as a sentence that began: “The trouble with you is...”.

In fact, the “trouble” with organisations that speak and think like that fail, because success depends on diversity of approach and mindset, and that demands that we value our differences.

Organisations that can’t achieve this cannot have a ‘creative’ blossoming beside a ‘shaper’. The creative will dismiss the shaper. The shaper will dismiss the creative. And they both will meet in corridors to moan about the unreasonable technical specialist, and work at how to block them.

It’s a line-up that almost every organisation falls to, and a waste of energy that is close to tragic. Where all those staff, with different strengths, appreciate that they are more together and see what each can contribute, the results are amazing. It makes Apples.

But where an organisation, from top downwards, cannot tolerate a ‘shaper’, does not value a ‘creative’, doesn’t recruit them, doesn’t listen to them when they arrive, the project fails.  The lesson is to see the strength that every individual holds, value it, and deploy it. Or to defy the evidence, and do it the way that the 95 per cent of failing organisations do it — without respect, and without teamwork — all the way to failure.

The writer is Group Content and Training Editor at The Standard Group.

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