Searching for Unicorns

Knowledge, Application and Common Sense

Let’s say you’ve never driven a car before but really wanted to learn how to. In an effort to help, I give you a manual containing all the theory (knowledge) relating to operating a motor vehicle, the rules of the road and everything else you would need to know. It is conceivable that you could take that manual and study it, write an exam and in all likelihood pass it with 100%.

In so doing, you would have acquired the knowledge.

However, I now say to you, “there’s the car, here are the keys, it’s parked outside on that steep slope – get into and drive off without stalling it or rolling back”. What are the chances of success? Virtually zero! You may have the knowledge of how it is done but, you have no idea how to apply it.

Fortunately, application can be practiced and with practice, you would probably pass another test with 100% again.

Now that you have passed the theory and have demonstrated you can apply it, I now put alcohol (too much of it) in front of you, make you drink it and take to the road. What could possibly go wrong?

This is the final piece, common sense – or put slightly differently, your sense of responsibility and ethics you apply to the application of your knowledge.

I’ve said it before in my article The War on Talent, we hire for skill (knowledge) but fire for non performance and bad attitude (application and common sense). We also never manage people based on their knowledge – have you ever seen a performance review where an individual has clearly not met their targets and KPI’s but the at the end of it, it says “it’s OK because at least they have a degree or you tried really hard?” Not likely!

Companies like IBM, (and add to that Google and Apple) have chosen a different path. Not only have they dropped the requirement of a degree as the first recruitment criteria (instead opting for a route that includes coding bootcamps and industry related vocational classes), they have also successfully created and fostered an organisational culture where knowledge, application and common sense can thrive. All three are in the top 50 on the Fortune 500 list and all three are considered aspirational places to work.

But rather than harping on about my favourite peeve and the antiquated approach to recruitment, I would prefer to focus on a far more important aspect – CULTURE.

So what about culture, what is it exactly? 

Prof. Sumantra Ghoshal puts it so well in this video. He says “culture is the smell of the place”. Think about it… You either sense a pleasant or an unpleasant smell, just like you either have a conducive or a toxic culture – you never get anything in between.

Pause for a minute and consider three questions.

  1. Does your organisation have the ability to attract great talent? Or is great talent attracted to you? This is as contingent on what the offer is as well as the reputation of your brand and the culture of your organisation. I would argue that brand and culture are two sides of the same coin, brand is what your clients see and experience and culture is what your people see and experience – or as the Prof puts it, “the smell that people get”.
  2. Do you have the ability to spot great talent, or are you so fixed on minimum requirements that you literally can’t see the wood for the trees? This often has to do with the gatekeepers who just can’t (or aren’t allowed) to see the bigger picture, or it’s a symptom of desperately clinging onto “how its always been done”.
  3. Are you retaining the talent you have and are they able to succeed and rise through the organisation?

What did you score out of 3?

So how do you go about “getting the place to smell right”?

Firstly, engage somebody from the outside. Not only do they bring an objective point of view, they are also far more likely to be able to get your people to fully open up and share their insights.

Next, engage the whole organisation and invite them to participate in the process – nobody should be forced. You want people at all levels of seniority, those who are at different ends of the “positivity/negativity” scale, those who are both for and against things as they currently are – you want as much diversity as possible.

Lastly, follow a well thought-out process.

  • Step 1: Understand the problem/s you want to solve. A qualitative and quantitative climate audit will provide you with invaluable information. In many cases, it may be stuff you already know but, the cathartic value of getting it out, written down and fed back should never be underestimated.
  • Step 2: Information is power – analyse and contextualise the information gathered. This is not a process of deciding whether it is right or wrong, justified or unjustified, true or false – it is about agreeing to accept that the information gathered reflects the thoughts, opinions and points of view of those who were asked.
  • Step 3: Share the information and open up channels to get ideas as to how to best address the identified issues. Identifying problems and issues is easy so use this as an opportunity to put the thinking where it belongs and allow people to be part of the solution. They will surprise you.
  • Step 4: Agree the solution/s and all of its composite parts, steps and stages. Communicate the plan and commit the necessary resources to it.
  • Step 5: Implement and execute

Culture, and specifically fostering the right kind of culture, is something you have to be deliberate about; it requires work from everybody in the organisation and the work is seldom, if ever, DONE!

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