Changing Places: Could the Lunatics run the Asylum?

Don’t try this at home!

A new programme ‘Format Farm’ appeared on RTE last week. Did you see it? The station is piloting a number of new formats and gauging the audience response to these. It’s the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ by James Surowiecki (subtitle: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few) applied to TV production. Anyway, the first programme involved a bakery, Tea Time Express. This traditional brand – the company is in business for over 70 years- had become tired; something had to give.

Garden Leave: Over a 10-day period, the 2 senior executives were put on ‘garden leave’ and the staff tasked with turning around the business. The motivation was simple. The revenue was going south; the bakers were already on a 3-day week and there were real fears around long-term job security. In just 2 weeks, could the workforce reverse the declining fortunes? The voiceover was provided by Norah Casey (Dragon’s Den) who also facilitated the sessions with the staff. It made great TV with the bakers donning suits, making sales calls and accosting shoppers in Dundrum Town Centre.

Car Crash: It started badly. The initial ‘analysis’ unearthed the fact that there was a poor relationship between the ‘office’ and the ‘factory’ staff. Even if they became boozing buddies, this was hardly the Third Secret of Fatima, which would turn the ship around. But the analysis quickly moved on from this shaky start. Market research demonstrated that ‘older customers’ were loyal but younger people had never heard of Tea Time Express. And visits to a range of coffee shops helped them figure out that the market for ‘traditional’ cakes had changed dramatically. It was like trying to sell horse buggy whips in a Blackrock BMW dealership. Completely useless, unless, of course, the customers had read Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James (it’s a ‘pain’ keeping up to date with the literature but someone has to do it).

Cup Cake Wars: The staff came up with an idea for Cup Cakes. The senior team previously considered this, but rejected it as a fad. The stage was set for battle between the executive team and the ‘workers’. Yes! Put more coal on that fire. The staff also came up with some new product ideas (e.g. cakes targeting the Polish community) and cleverly linking porter slices with the Porterhouse brand. Some of the methodology was a bit amateurish, but there was no mistaking the high energy and enthusiasm generated. They were going for gold. There were a few anxious moments when the Lord Mayor of Dublin and David Norris came into the programme, shamelessly seeking publicity or trying to support a local business, depending on your point of view.

Happy Ending: Like Hollywood, RTE likes happy endings. New orders started to trickle in and the business returned to a 5-day week. The MD admitted on camera that his initial antagonism towards Cup Cakes (never fully explained) had been overcome when he tasted the new samples the bakers had produced. The feel good factor was certainly high. Norah Casey had a bigger smile than Barney the Dinosaur. So, have we finally discovered a magic elixir, a new winning formula that will cure all organization ills? Just ask the management team to hang a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign on their door and take the rest of the day/week/month off? I don’t think so. Here are a couple of rules for all successful change plans.

Rule 1: Correct Diagnosis: In changing organizations, there is a need to ensure that you’ve locked onto the central issues. Like medicine, an effective cure depends on an accurate diagnosis. You can’t fix a problem that you don’t understand. Now, I don’t know enough about Tea Time Express to make a ‘distance diagnosis’ but there were a lot of unanswered questions in that programme (I will assume some of these were addressed in the background and some of the ‘boring’ footage left on the cutting room floor). Sometimes, it takes time to fully figure this out. Central Point: If the only criteria you use is speed, you just get to the wrong place faster.

Rule 2: Pseudo Democracy: Be careful that you don’t involve people for a moment in time and then slide back to a ‘non-involvement’ model. One of the senior executives seemed taken aback by the fact that staff had not mentioned the issues directly to him. He continually used the line: “My door is always open”. Some years ago I interviewed Minister Pat Rabbitte when he worked in SIPTU; he described it as follows: “In some companies, the open door policy could better be described as an open gate policy”. Pseudo Democracy might work great on TV, but my experience is that you can’t be ‘a little bit pregnant’ on this. Once you go with it, it’s hard to roll back (without making things worse). We know that ‘people don’t resist their own ideas’ and staff engagement can work really well. But efforts to engage the staff need to be sincere and long-term, not turned on and off like a tap.

Rule 3: Don’t Make People Feel Stupid: Asking people to get involved in areas where they have zero experience can make them feel stupid. I was really surprised at the courage of some of the bakers going along to meet trade customers, moving out of their comfort zone. People can be oil-gushers of creativity, but you need to be careful that they are not asked to get involved in areas where they have no competence. At one point, the trainee accountant in Tea Time Express (a 24 years old) completed a full PR & marketing plan! It made for good TV but it’s hardly an idea to ‘bet the farm’ on. Take small steps in this space and make people feel competent.

Rule 4: Not everyone’s Opinion Should Carry Equal Weight: In organizations, everyone has been trained to do a particular job. And people with specialist training should really be listened to. There are 2 functions, in particular, that this applies to – Marketing and Human Resources. Why? Because everyone has an opinion on ‘products’ and on ‘people’ (“I like blue boxes. No, I like yellow boxes. OK, then let’s go with both”). It’s certainly democratic. But, it’s also incorrect. There is an entire science underpinning packaging colour which is unknown to a layperson and which should influence key decisions in that space. Similarly, with people issues, everyone has an opinion but that needs to be informed with real behavioural science. For sure, ‘experts’ can be wrong and as the boss you have to make the final call – but not without first listening to what the staff who have been trained in a discipline have to say.

Rule 5: “Let’s improve everything” is not a strategy: Organizations are faced with multiple choices and limited budgets. Like a military commander, you have to deploy your resources to the areas of greatest need. Pick key strategic targets and then make changes in those key areas. When this is done, drop down your ‘to do’ list. Strategy implies choice; it’s not a brainstormed list of everything that needs to be improved.

Overall Verdict: Allowing the staff run the business makes for great TV but, in general, it doesn’t make sense. You’re paid to lead. This programme was a triumph of process (staff engagement) over outputs. The senior team should have led the turnaround. And, if they didn’t know how to lead it, that was the core presenting issue which needed to be addressed. The programme was certainly a brave experiment and it had some very funny moments. But…don’t try this at home!

Paul Mooney

Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact paul@tandemconsulting.ie and we will add them to the mailing list. If you’d like to have a discussion about management or organization development, give me a call on 087 2439019.

PS: Daughter Dating: On a lighter note, have a look at the following checklist developed by a concerned father. It’s funny…

So, you want to date my daughter?

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About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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