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So, the first things we told you about this hack was what you can't do with it. That wouldn't happen in real life, would it..?
Well, we're glad you got this far. And depressingly, yes it does happen. We hope you'll keep reading and make whatever suggestions or comments you like. This is actually all about what you can do, and not about what you can't.
The language of organisations, particularly in certain sectors and industries, is often geared around risk. But too often, these organisations propogate fear rather than enable creativity and innovation. One of the enemies of adaptability is Command-and-control systems (that) lead to organizations filled with anxious employees who are hesitant to take the initiative or trust their own judgment.
This is often seen in the form of policies and procedures, through to other communication such as posters, and everyday signage, focusing on what people can't or mustn't do.
So to hack this, we suggest using those same media to very visibly tell people what they can do. In the Botanic Gardens in Sydney, there are signs saying things like 'Please walk on the grass - please also enjoy the smell of the roses and feel free to touch the trees'. Immediately this sort of communication generates a different, less phobic way of interacting. We think we could hack this into organisations too.
Risk management is vital for organisations. We've all seen catastrophic impacts of the failure to check certain freedoms and limit high risk practices. Shareholder value has been destroyed in all too many organisations because accepted organisational behaviour became detached from wider considerations around the management of risk and a perception that adverse consequences could permanently be avoided.
But there's a similar danger to innovation if we roll back freedoms and try and control risk in such a way as to erode employee engagement.
If organisations continue to talk to employees in terms of things they can’t or mustn’t do, they risk limiting the chances to innovate or even to speak up if they see something happening that they feel is going to cause problems for the organisation, it’s staff, customers or shareholders.
Real employee engagement comes when staff feel they are active contributors to the health and prosperity of the organisation. We know already that low trust inhibits this. So we need to do something big and bold that shows that we trust each other, without feeding the anarchy of unchecked risk.
We've studied organisations where this aversion to risk often finds it's ultimate expression in the way that the organisation addresses and instructs people in the most fundamental everyday ways possible. In one organisation, we memorably encountered a staff kitchen area containing almost 20 signs and posters telling people what they couldn't or mustn't do. Examples included:
- Do not place unwashed cups in the sink
- Do not leave your lunch in the fridge for more than 2 days
- Don't place your hands under the flow of boiling water
It's easy to see what has gone on here over time. Often, you can spot the first instruction, because it's a really important one that people might not otherwise know about - for example, don't open this cupboard door too hard, because it has been known to fall off it's hinges. But very soon, it becomes open season on similarly instructive posters, and before you know it, something a simple as getting a cup of coffee feels like being enclosed by a deafening chorus of often unecessary instructions.
This is partly about comms and signage, but they are just a symbolic expression of what this hack is all about. It goes deeper than that - into the way that we talk to one another and write policies.
This kind of thing matters because organisations need to adapt to the new freedom, experimentation and meritocracy that the deep principles of the web are driving in our society. Can you imagine a redesigned log-in screen on Twitter that got in your way by always listing 20 or so things you couldn't or mustn't do, and you needed to understand that before you were allowed to log in?
Twitter is a good example, because it offers a true and relevant expression of the accepted and collective wisdom of crowds. If there is something you need to know about a service provider, apps like Twitter and Foursquare have already crowd-sourced this. You take it seriously if you read someone you follow telling you about something you may need to be aware of.
So how can this work in organisations?
We think it starts at the very beginning of the relationship between a new colleague and an employer. We should use onboarding to give new colleagues licence to challenge and ask why when they are told about something that they can’t do.
This would create a constant, self-renewing insurgency and would do away with the issue that sometimes rules have been in place for so long that nobody can actually remember why they exist. It would force us to become better at making sure we knew why some things remain important. In addition, we need to be better at demonstrating that we want people to be courageous about sharing ideas.
When people have a good idea that works and is taken up, is that always highlighted? If not, it should be.
Even a simple, practical step like replacing ‘please don’t...’ posters with ones actively encouraging people to do bold things, and replicating this in the language we use more generally in the organisation will have a collective impact over time on helping nudge the culture towards something more open and collaborative. Even when red “don’t” signage is needed, we suggest accompanying it with companion green signage stating what other thing “can be done” and how this is valuable for the organisation.
This hack isn't just about removing the ways in which we tell people what they can't do. It's about encouraging experimentation and hacking across the organisation. So successes need to be highlighted and attributed, so that people know and understand which bits of accepted organisational practice started with a hack or an employee-driven experiment.
It's also about offering people more choice. Got an appraisal system that doesn't work for you? Guess what, you're not alone. What are the basic essentials the organisation needs from an appraisal? Beyond that, what have other people tried that has worked for them? Promoting this ability and freedom to hack beyond the essentials could be transformative in organisations.
And consider for a moment some organisations in which this more open and empowering style of language and communication works well for customers and staff:
- Netflix has built it's brand on being easy to interact with. It doesn't bombard customers with instructions or restrictions - instead, it talks from the first screen you see about how easy it is and how little effort you need to invest in order to start viewing it's content.
- Innocent famously pioneered a chatty, informal tone that has been widely (and not always successfully) imitated since - but in the process, it won a very loyal customer base by moving away from the cold and mechanical lists of ingredients, to talking to consumers about some of the great things about Innocent.
- Whole Foods adopt a similarly empowering and encouraging style of communication not just with customers but in the way they communicate with candidates through recruitment and selection.
These, and many other examples show organisations who have recognised the value of developing a culture of freedom, where individuals are trusted and empowered to make choices rather than be shepherded through narrow or confusing paths that leave them feeling as though they can't be relied upon to just follow the path that feels right for them.
Changing the tone of voice and way that an organisation communicates often stops short of the obvious, everyday, usually quite small ways that we talk to people. But this isn’t about simply rewording what is there already, it’s about reaching out in different ways.
You might expect to see a policy that is full of descriptions of what you can’t do. Imagine reading that the other way round - telling you all the things you can do and giving you a very clear sense of what the organisation will support you in doing.
This has the potential to really change the way that we bring forward ideas and suggestions in organisations. The brain cannot really process the words: Do Not. (e.g. Do Not walk on the wall is interpreted as “walk on the wall” as Do not is not an actionable action) The brain also likes to remember the last part of sentences (walk on the wall) - changing that into the exact behaviour you Do Not want to see.
Changing our language and the words we use will help our brains to make sense of the preferred behaviour we want to see in the organisation as well.
If we had to sum up the impact of this shift, it would be helping foster a deeper sense of ownership in the organisation by the people at all levels that make the organisation prosper. We're talking here about engagement, which we know from several studies has a tangible positive impact on the bottom line, increasing sales in measurable terms.
Organisations may well feel nervous about moving away from telling people what they can’t do, particularly in environments where safety and regulation are important. But this hack is not about stopping that altogether, it’s just about repositioning and focusing on language that does the ‘can do’ stuff first.
Employees could read the initiative with a cynical eye if we just rephrase the don’ts in do’s “don’t walk on the lawn”.
We see also the risk of people limiting themselves to the things that became “allowed” because of the positive messages and rule out any other “creative” behaviour not explicitly included nor excluded from the messages. How do we make sure this doesn’t happen?
As time goes by, posters, signs, etc. tend to be filtered (ignored) by people as just as if they were parts of the scenery (especially if people are exposed to those signs for a prolonged period of time). This is due to a mental mechanism we all have to protect ourselves from information overload. In this sense, our 'yes, you can' messages could be ignored too after a certain period of time.
A possible solution for this situation is to replace the posters (hopefully as soon as a positive behaviour has been installed/reinforced within the organization) with a new set of 'yes, you can' messages. The ones that have been removed, now can be archived in a sort of 'yes, you can' 'book' (similar to a brand book), or maybe stored in an 'yes, you can art gallery'. Of course, a mature approach to social learning and online collaboration in organisations would also help foster and deepen this understanding.
Engaging leaders and senior managers will be an important first step. To do this, we recommend coming up with some tangible, practical examples of how this approach can change the relationship that people have with businesses and organisations. We also suggest giving these leaders and managers the task of coming up with one 'yes, you can' each, to get the ball rolling.
Given that this hack is partly predicated on generating an almost 'viral' sense of colleagues challenge the 'you can't do this' culture that prevails in some organisations, we suggest starting with a gradual, phased viral comms campaign.
This could include taking the 'yes, you can's' developed by the management team, and where there are posters or policies, or other comms telling people that they currently can't do something, we suggest using a logo, sticker or some such visual device to visually state that 'yes, you can'.
We think that this could be effective because rather than simply strip away the 'no you can't material and replace it, this might suggest a more insurgent sense of challenge, and might help get across a more tangible sense that things were changing.
In one of the organisations represented by this hacking group, there is a Health and Safety process to refresh all our employees on Health and Safety once a year (apart from our ongoing training for new employees).
At a forthcoming meeting of the training team to discuss this year’s refresher roll-out, one of the hacking group members will propose that the organisation follows this “You may” approach in the training immediately as well as design a few posters to reinforce visibly. They will also include the Health and Safety committee in this regard and agree with them on a “You may” campaign shortly after the training to reinforce this concept again. They will monitor the impact over the next 3 months.
A similar approach could be adopted easily by other organisations in relation to a range of activities and processes.
This may all sound good in principle, but could anyone apply this hack, and if so, how? What about people who work in necessarily risk-averse organisational cultures?
Well, we think this hack some universal applications, so here are a few simple steps to help anyone make a start, cheaply and easily.
Step 1 - Say No to 'no'
- The first step is to check out how often your organisation is telling people what they can't do.
- Your first step is to gather up as many examples as you can find over the course, say, of a week.
- If that means that you might have to take down a few posters - then yes, you can...
Step 2 - Cluster, Count and Categorise
- At the end of this week, you might want to group or cluster some of the 'no's' together - for example, what type of negative is it? Health and Safety instructions? Restrictively worded policies? Training that explains what you mustn't do rather than what you may do?
- Sort and categorise your discoveries, and do a count of each. Keep the examples, as you're going to need them in the next step.
Step 3 - Get the word out
- This is where you show and tell people how many times the organisation is telling people what they can't do.
- In whatever way works for your organisation, let people know what you've found. You'll know who the best people to talk to at this stage are - it will be different in different organisations.
Step 4 - Crowd source the possible
- In this stage, we suggest developing a consensus about some alternatives. This isn't about one person or small group of people coming up with new ways to word or phrase things - it's about asking people what they think they could do, whilst still staying safe/managing risk appropriately, and so on.
- Give them some of the 'no' examples, and ask for their ideas about turning these into 'yes, you can's'.
- This should generate some healthy discussion that gets people paying attention to the shift in the sense of permission and empowerment you are making.
- You may want to prioritise or focus on a themed group at a time - for example, spend a week or two looking at re-working all of the 'no' elements to some of the training, before moving on to look at other themed areas in turn.
Step 5 - Spot and share
- This hack isn't just about making some changes in language - it's about effecting lasting attitudinal change and fostering more creativity.
- You might want to ask managers to spot and share examples of this shift in their teams. Once people start realising that other teams are not so much 'getting away with things', but 'trying things and getting them done', that's when this hack will really generate it's own forward momentum.
- How you scale the 'terms of reference' around what creativity and freedom look like for your organisation very much depends on your business.
Here’s a no, you can’t photo that one of the hacking team members took at Santiago de Chile’s underground. We are (in general) surrounded with those kinds of messages and subtles cues that remind us that we should follow the rules...