Is it time you cleared out the “deadwood” in your organisation?

Cutting out deadwood

Is it time you cleared out the “deadwood” in your organisation?

Cutting out deadwood

Springtime is the right time to get out in the garden with the pruning shears and reshape your fruit trees ahead of their next phase of growth.  We imply something similar when we talk about “deadwood” in the context of organisations.  Only we are talking about people not vegetation.

What or who is for the knife?

Deming observed that 95% of performance (good or bad) results from the system and only 5% from the people.  Following that theme this post will present the idea that it is “the system” that we should be attacking with a sharp instrument, not human beings.

Why change the system?

When we first completed the research that underpins the Vitality Index it was way back in 1990.  In 2010 when we reran the research, on aggregate and based on the organisations in our samples the Vitality of UK organisations had dropped by something like 5 percentage points.   

“Vitality” is an umbrella term that we use that encompasses employee experience, adaptability, and ability to innovate. 

We package these three things together because they are the unavoidable consequences of a set of 26 practices that our research identified.

If you adopt the practices, you will get these outcomes – all of them; you can’t pick and choose – sorry.

What changed between 1990 & 2010?

The rate of change, that’s what.

A lot happened between 1990 and 2010.  The internet happened for a start and brought with it entirely new ways of doing business, building relationships, communicating as well as opening-up a whole new world of easy-to-access information.  This combined with a whole heap of other new technologies meant that the rate of change in the external environment accelerated to a whole new level.  And yet in the same intervening time the ability of our organisations to adapt deteriorated.  And that in spite of the zillions of words written on the subject of how to manage change in a VUCA world.

If the world was speeding up, why were organisations slowing down?

This is the $6M dollar question.  Our research was able to indicate and broadly quantify the slow-down but was not designed to identify the why.  

Based on our observations however, we have a hunch.   In this time organisations seemed to get taller, with more layers of management, and wider with much more functional specialism (i.e. in these two decades procurement became widely professionalised, the ratio of HR people to numbers employed  exploded).  So much more of everyone’s work was done within the constraints of an IT system (great for visibility, efficiency and consistency, not so good for continual improvement and adaptation).    Industrial regulation widened to affect more sectors and deepened in its complexity and implications.  A net result of all of these, and other factors, is that organisations became much more cumbersome, getting things done was rarely straight forward. The risk aversion of leaders also infected the mindset of anyone in the organisation with decision authority . Thus, to “prevent the worst happening”, processes, procedures and rules proliferated, and decisions got slowed by passing them up to the boss.  

Sorry for the loaded question, but what do you think the net effect of all of these factors might be on an organisation’s ability to offer a great employee experience, to be nimble, adaptive and to innovate?

What is bureaucratic drift?

Processes, procedures, rules and authorisation levels all have their place, but have you ever noticed how much more common it is for process and procedure to get added and for rules and authorisation requirements to tighten than it is for them to be removed or relaxed?   In the absence of this removal / relaxation activity, year on year, the level of bureaucracy grows without anybody really noticing, a bit like boiling a frog. So, unless there is a routine and deliberate effort to prune back the ever-expanding bureaucracy, we should expect our organisations to fall into a state that we call bureaucratic drift, becoming more and more bogged down in resource sapping and unrewarding activity which is of questionable value.  

How might we go about the job of pruning? 

When teams in organisations use the Vitality Index, we help them make changes in the form of safe-to-try experiments.  Thanks to the research-based diagnostic capability of the Index, the teams are directed towards specific areas of practice that have the greatest potential for each individual team.   Drawing on the knowledge contained in the Vitality Playbook, and the tacit knowledge in our heads, we offer some ideas to stimulate their own suggestions.  We always encourage the team towards changes that lighten the bureaucratic load, rather than add to it.  Here are some examples:  

  • Rather than adding a new report, meeting or agenda item, how about removing something that seems to add no value and see what happens?
  • Search for and scrap processes / systems that have become institutionalised – the ones that may have had some value in the past but have outlived their ‘see-by-date’.
  • Locate processes that are justified under the name of ‘control’ and check to see what actual control there is.  Or do we just have the ‘illusion of control’ but none in reality?
  • Check the ‘earners and spenders’ ratio.  Earners are the people who generate the organisations income and add value to customers.  Spenders do not.  Shift spenders to more added-value roles, especially those that add value to customers.
  • Crowd source to find out what is currently most difficult for and frustrating to employees and what they would like to see changed.  And then engage them with the change process, from the why to the what to the how.
  • Check to see how time is occupied with routine, repetitive activities – that are a bit like running hard on the spot, but don’t generate forward movement.  Then engage people in stuff that will improvement performance in some way – the one-off tasks and events that will create movement
  • Search for opportunities to replace tight, prescriptive rules with broad guidelines – and work out with the people involved what they should be.

Be bold; unlike the work of secateurs, pruning bureaucracy is reversible

“Safe-to-try” is the key here, all changes can be made in some way partial, time bound or reversible, so in way there is nothing to lose and learning is guaranteed.  So no need to be timid, be radical.  Unlike other forms of pruning accidents you wont be left trying to re-graft limbs onto trees or losing the wrong people. 

Be bold, explore, experiment, have fun and whatever you do, don’t drift into a place you don’t want to be.

This post was written by Ben, he likes nothing more than helping with teams as they bushwhack their way through the bureaucratic entanglements that frustrate them and stifle the organisations’ performance. 

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Can we survey our way to better employee engagement?

Unhelpful reports

Can we survey our way to better employee engagement?

Unhelpful reports
Photo by on Unsplash

From a Gallup report issued in 2022, there was this conclusion: “Employee engagement levels in the UK are one of the worst in Europe with fewer than one in 10 UK employees feeling enthusiastic about their job.”

In the old days there were attitude surveys, and they just about always resulted in some sort of report.  Today they are called employee engagement surveys, and now sometimes employee experience surveys, but little has changed except the name.  Otherwise, the issues remain – including one over-riding thought.  If employee engagement surveys are such a good idea, how come there is still a problem?

Time for an explanation and some thoughts on how to do better?

Just get some data and make some changes

The logic is fine; survey our people, get some data, use data to change some stuff, employee engagement improves.  Except, in practice, according to Gallup at least, it doesn’t.  “Employee engagement levels in the UK ranked 33 out of 38 European countries, and suffered a two-point drop in score compared with last year’s survey.” If anything, it looks like it might be getting worse.  The good news, and goodness we need some, is that more and more organisations are taking this issue very seriously; the fact that we haven’t “shifted the needle” has in no way deterred us from trying.  Also encouraging is the recognition of the need for good data to guide decision-making.  However,  employee engagement is a complex output formed in an emergent way from many complex inputs, and will never be resolved through simple, one-dimensional actions.

But what data and what changes to make?

What are reports for?  If this is not clear, known and accepted by all, from the outset, and nailed down through some sort of charter, then it is highly likely that the purpose will either get distorted or forgotten completely.  In those circumstances, it sounds like another heavyweight report consuming loads of storage space and producing little in return.  Defining a clear purpose might seem like an indulgent use of time, but it is essential to staying on course.

Once purpose is clear, it will probably be possible to answer some more key questions: Who is in the target audience?  What are their goals?  How is the report supposed to help them achieve their goals?  Clarity here will help with making important design decisions, not only about the survey itself and the report generated but even more about the process by which the data is reviewed, analysed and used to design and implement improvement action.  Without that action there is little or no chance of anything actually getting better.

If the response rate to your current survey is in decline, take this as a strong indication that a fundementally different approach is required.  

And who should make the changes?

Another key question to help with those design decisions: is the report something that is ‘done to people’ or is it something that helps the employees themselves to identify and address the issues that need attention?  If the target audience is only managers (or even worse only select managers) don’t expect a lot of improvement action.  The ‘iceberg of ignorance’[1] will strike here.  As a generalisation, managers do not know what the key, operational issues are in their organisations – and they will know even less about the causes of those issues.  More of which later.

Then there is the risk of the report’s existence becoming an end in itself – another box ticked every year or two.  And the longer and more glossy the report is, the less likely that action will result.  Managers are busy people – however pretty the report may be, if it is long, there is little chance that it will be read and studied – and even less that it will stimulate improvement action.  And if the report does not result in some sort of improvement, then what is the point of the report?

[1]     The “iceberg of ignorance” is a concept popularized by a 1989 study by Sidney Yoshida. It posited that front line workers were aware of 100% of the floor problems faced by an organisation, supervisors were aware of only 74%, middle managers were aware of only 9%, and senior executives were aware of only 4% of the problems.

The presenting problem is rarely the one that needs to be fixed…

Symptoms of problems may be useful, in that they may help identify a cause or causes, but in themselves the have little value.  And the one thing that is for sure is that tackling symptoms alone is never going to solve the problem.  Try giving aspirin to someone suffering with a headache.  The symptoms may be controlled, but the person may die because of a much more serious ailment, the symptoms of which were being covered up by the aspirin treatment.

Employee engagement surveys will seldom produce any really valuable insights into causes, which are generally hidden from view.  In the absence if any diagnostic capability, they produce a description of the current state as it is experienced by the employees – but they are just symptoms.  Part of the issue here is the nature of the questions used in the surveys.  Generally, they are questions calling for some sort of judgement.  And direct, judgemental questions may identify symptoms but will never identify causes.  And so valid improvement action becomes an impossibility.  They also invite conscious and unconscious bias….

The opportunities to improve reside in your organisation, not anyone else’s

Finally, how does anyone know what constitutes a good result?  Comparisons with other organisations or aggregated statistics showing norms are not going to help identify whether or not the organisation is a good performer, against a researched model of what good looks like – except in merely relative terms.  “We are better than the average”.  Is the average itself good?  Or rubbish?  “OK, so the average is getting better and so are we”  Does that mean approaching close to perfection?  Or climbing out of the pit of ‘deplorable’?  (Whatever that might mean.)

What are the research data being used to identify an external standard for ‘good’?  If there is one, to what degree does the research identify individual management practices that can make the difference between success and non-success?  Back to symptoms and causes! 

What if we enabled our people to lead the change?

What if there were an alternative approach?  A very different means of generating data, one capable of providing insights into both symptoms and causes.  What if that diagnostic processes also identified top priority, key causes, with no need for long reports.  What if those insights were specific to each and every team in the organisation, thus bypassing the ‘iceberg’ problems.  What if those teams were supported by external facilitators to define their own safe-to-try improvements, to improve the climate in their own team.

Moreover, high levels of diversity and psychological safety in decision-making groups guarantee high levels of inclusion.   These groups always generate higher quality decisions and improvement where it is needed most – that is, where the problems are.  And guess what happens to levels of engagement?

Enabling each and every team in the organisation to work on those areas of practice that will have greatest benefit to their Employee Engagement is the essence of The Vitality Index. You can read more about it here.

If you are curious about shifting the approach to improving Employee Engagement or if you can’t bear the thought of commissioning another report or if you’d just like a thinking partner to help you nail that purpose statement, then we’d love to help.

This post was written by Denis Bourne, co-founder or Organisational Vitality.  Denis ran the research that the Vitality Index diagnostic is based upon.   He has over 40 years’ experience helping organisations become more autonomous, innovative, and change enabled, and, as a happy consequence, also enjoying fantastic employee experience.

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Is experimentation the key becoming a more human-centric Organisation?

Experiment your way to a more human-centric culture

Is experimentation the key becoming a more human-centric Organisation?

Experiment your way to a more human-centric culture
Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash

I’ve been reflecting on a day spent with the wonderful people at Mayden recently. For those that don’t know them, Mayden are a Corporate Rebels bucket list organisation who have flattened their hierarchy and embraced agile across all their activities. Needless to time spent with them is always thought provoking.

Are there only two types of Organisation?

Sweeping generalisation alert: I wonder if there are only two types of organisations.  Those that have recognised the folly and toxicity of the command and control approach to management and rejected it, and those that haven’t. 

Now here’s the thing.  Most leaders of most organisations would feel that their approach to management was not “command and control.” yet it is only a tiny minority of organisations who are, genuinely, committed to a path where the tacit assumptions that underpin command and control are entirely absent.  Indeed, many accepted best practices are built on one or more of those assumptions.

Another way of framing it is to consider which of the following open questions better describes your organisations’ approach to people: 

  1. How do we create the conditions where people find great intrinsic reward in giving the best of their whole self at work? or
  2. What are the best levers, carrots, sticks, perks and coercions that we have to give us the best return on our salary bill?

These two questions set you on very different paths, so is there any middle ground?  A question I’ll return to.

The convergent evolution of progressive organisations

Bill Gore set up W.L Gore to create an organisation entirely free of bureaucracy. Jos de Blok set-up Buurtzorg to reconnect nurses with the job that they loved and to give their patients the best, personalised care. Chris May developed Mayden with a desire to do something better for its people than follow the herd with conventional management.  Although very different in size, sector, era and geography there are spooky similarities in the norms and everyday practices you would find in all three organisations.   And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised; if you set-out to create your organisations to fundamentally “work with the grain” of humans; our psychology, sociology, and anthropology we will, by iteration and emergence, arrive in a similar place.

If we set out now to invent the norms and mechanisms of our organisations based on what we know about humans and human performance, what we’d come up with would bear no relation to what we see in most organisations today. 

But many of us are not starting our organisation from scratch

Bill, Jos and Chris all bore the scare tissue of experiencing command and control management and that galvanised them to create something different.  Those different “somethings” were all built on very different and better informed assumptions about people.  Most of us are not in that situation.  The organisations that most of us lead are work in progress, not a blank sheet of paper.  Many of us feel that we have inherited a situation which is not of our design, very likely there are bits about it that we don’t like and perceive those bits to be hard to change.

In reality we are all on a journey

No start-up has ever scaled and flourished into an organisation and got everything right first time.  Snags, glitches, wrong calls and failures are inevitable and essential to finding the right path for your unique situation.  Even the poster child progressive organisations have had these set-backs along the way, they are quite open about them

This is perhaps where we find the middle ground, every organisation will have its own level of comfort or discomfort with the conventional approaches to management.  The more discomfort there is, the more rapid the evolution will be.

What determines how quickly your organisation will evolve?

So, assuming you ascribe more to Q1 (How do we create the conditions where people find great intrinsic reward in giving the best of their whole self at work?) than Q2, how do we get started and how quickly can we progress?  Here I’m reminded of something that Margaret Heffernan said when speaking with Lisa Gill on her excellent Leadermorphosis podcast.

“…do not think you can think your way to the answer. You can’t, it’s impossible. You have to do something different and see how the system responds. From that you’ve learned something that you can build on. But absolutely, none of us can solve these real world problems in our heads. It’s not physics, it’s not math. It’s human beings working together. And the way people learn to work together, is by working together.”

Is experimentation the difference that makes the difference?

The practice of experimentation is the key. Experimentation is largely absent in command and control organisations, and woven into just about everyone’s roles in progressive organisations. Based on our research into change-enabled organisations, experimentation is the “how” that applies to the majority of the 26 areas of practice that our research identified.
Experimentation is also, in and of itself, a practice that helps people find great intrinsic reward and creates opportunities for them to give the best of their whole self at work. It is also the engine-room of ever-improving ways of working. So, both the process and the output are accelerants to the evolution.

Two types of organisation?

Absolutely not. Some are more command and control than others, some more human-centric. But if you are committed to a journey from the former to the later, giving people the time, the safe climate, and the autonomy to develop their own safe-to-try experiments will really help build momentum. What’s stopping you from experimenting with it?


The Vitality Index (VI) engenders the habit of experimentation in every team in the organisation. Based on our research, The VI is able to identify the three (out of 26) areas of practice that, if changed will be most beneficial to that specific team at the current moment in time. These insights, in combination with some independent facilitation from us and some inspiration from the Vitality playbook get the teams started on their journey towards ever-better ways of working. This is not just experimentation, this is change that the team own, change that is emergent and responsive and most importantly change that people feel good about.


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How to engender higher performance and happier people – for free!

Hertzberg - motivators and hygiene factors

How to engender higher performance and happier people – for free!

Hertzberg - motivators and hygiene factors

The research is over 50 years old – but with the challenges of today – employee engagement, talent retention, remote working, well-being, old ways of working being rejected – it is just as valuable for line managers today as when it was first exposed to the public gaze – back in 1968.

That was when Frederick Herzberg first published his motivator-hygiene theory in HBR, the article being entitled “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?”

The Herzberg model

The argument goes that within each of us, operating singly or in groups, there is norm of work output to which we will achieve.  Some aspects of the work environment may drag actual performance below that norm, while others will boost it far above.

What are hygiene factors?

The hygiene factors, below the line “norm of work output”, have to be appropriate.  If any of them is significantly adrift from what is needed and reasonable, then performance will suffer.  If employees are at odds with any aspect of the reality of their context as listed in the chart, then they will perform less well.  But, and it is a very big but, the indication is that how ever well the organisation delivers on the hygiene factors, performance is unlikely to rise above the norm, unless something else and different is also as it should be.

We simply can’t “hygiene factor” our way to high performance

Just to illustrate this there is some evidence that changing salaries will produce a short term up-tick to performance, but the improvement does not last.  We very soon shift our expectation (and our spending) to the higher level of disposable income, at which point higher pay has stopped being a motivator.   The same is true of other perks and bolt-ons. Strangely, it is with these hygiene factors that so many organisations try to motivate, attract and retain their people.   But if there is a war for talent, we can do so much better than trying to outgun rival employers by raising the stakes through our hygiene factors.

…how ever well the organisation delivers on the hygiene factors, performance is unlikely to rise above the norm…


If the hygiene factors don’t work…

… enter the motivators. These include meaningful and rewarding work; recognition; personal and team mastery; being involved and trusted.   Once these things are all in place, then performance will begin to fly.  This is even true if some of the hygiene factors are not totally ‘good’.  It is acknowledged that in those circumstances it is more difficult to motivate people to deliver starring performance, but it can be done.  We have seen plenty of teams deliver outstanding performance out of crumbling offices, and using IT that is well past it’s sell-by date.   Such de-motivators are no match for high-trust teams, engaged in meaningful work, in a climate that encourages people to experiment and give the best of themselves. 

What needs to change and what will it cost?

All of the above is conventional and largely as Herzberg had it, But what follows are additional and valuable insights from the model that don’t often get talked about.

First, we can think of an ‘organisation’ as an entity in its own right.  It has a structure, resources, processes and behavioural norms.  Then there is the individual manager.  This is the person who has a formal, structural relationship with the employees assigned to the manager, flowing from the organisation structure itself.  Complicated maybe, but able to be depicted with words, numbers and diagrams. We could call that the “Map”.

But there is also a whole set of interactions between the manager and employees, singly or in groups, and these exist regardless of the formal structure.  They are also highly variable and volatile, and operate on the basis of feed forward and feedback loops, each modifying behaviour in the next turn around, with results that are highly emergent in their nature.  Messy, unpredictable and intangible, the reality of the organisation is truly complex.  This we could call the “Territory”.

A quick glance at the Herzberg chart raises a simple question – who provides what?  The answer is that it is the formal organisation that provides the hygiene factors and the individual manager who looks after the motivators.  Hence the reason why even with deficient hygiene factors it is still possible for an effective manager to motivate employees to delivery great performance.

A second question is how much does it cost to meet these various needs?  The answer is that the hygiene factors cost mega bucks, whereas the motivators are totally free.  All they need is the investment of physical, intellectual and emotional energy by the individual manager into getting the motivators to be in a good place, and the superstars in all of us will do the rest.

If you believe that navigating your way around with only a map as your guide is OK, then good luck to you.  Our experience suggests that knowledge and understanding of the territory is also rather important!


…high performance is an outcome of good management practices by individual managers – and it’s totally free! 


Mirror, mirror on the wall…

So, the bottom line is this.  If you want to know why you are not looking at a team of highly motivated superstars, all pulling together, sharing information, solving shared problems and the learning that follows, don’t blame the organisation.  The organisation cannot deliver that.  Take a walk into the nearest bathroom – they all have one feature in common – and have a look in the mirror.  There you will find the cause of all your problems, along with the solution.

The fact of the matter is that high performance is an outcome of good management practices by individual managers – and it’s totally free!  Moreover, the effect is long-lasting since it is a change that feeds on itself.

No excuses – no budget required!

So no budget needed and a positive outcome for the business, its people, its customers and suppliers, and its local partners.  So why has the Herzberg approach not been adopted more widely?  And, especially now with the current focus on employee engagement, linked to ever better performance?

In the first instance, many people have not stumbled across the Herzberg stuff.  In the second is that nasty personal accountability stuff implied by the ‘bathroom mirror’ test.  Unless the managers in question acknowledge that they are part of the problem there is no way forward.  If there are performance problems, and the managers actions are making a difference, then they must be part of the problem.  If their actions are not making a difference, then they are part of the problem, by definition.

Then there is that physical, intellectual and emotional energy required to be invested in the organisation’s people, including the building of all-round trust.  And which can only come from individual managers.

So, how to get started?

The answer lies in the Herzberg model itself.  Check the entries for ‘Responsibility’, ‘Involvement’ and Personal Growth’.  Use these as the point of entry into the local system.  Go ask the people what needs to change to give them greater feedback ‘above the line’.  Including changes in management practices.  Run with whatever they come up with to get a process of never-ending experimentation and learning started.  Once through the pain barrier of getting started, it’s all great fun, for everyone.  What ever you do, make sure you are working “in the territory” not “on the map”

Sounds like better employee experience and better performance – at the same time – and it’s all for free!

Denis Bourne is a Co-founder of VitalOrg and has been helping courageous and curious folk bring greater autonomy to their organisations for over 40 years

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Is it time to rethink your employee wellbeing strategy? Part1: “do less”

Rethink Wellbeing

Is it time to rethink your employee wellbeing strategy? Part1: “do less”

Rethink Wellbeing

We think so…

We’d like to offer a fresh and challenging perspective on the hot topic of improving employees’ wellbeing, mental wellness and workload.  Controversially, in a world where leaders are being constantly sold must have services, apps and interventions in this space, our view is that in the main, a “do less” strategy will give greater benefit than launching yet more initiatives.

Achieve less by doing more?

Employers are doing lots more these days to try and improve the well-being and mental health of their employees – we are cheering them on all the way, for the intent at least.  However, we wonder if they aren’t addressing these issues from the “wrong end” and in a way that is “bolt-on” and not built-in.  We’ll try and explain:

“Wrong end” refers to strategies focused more on the treatment of symptoms as opposed to prevention.  E.g. providing a free counselling service or encouraging meditation practice whilst at the same time over-pressurising and micro-managing people.  Or offering resilience training; helping people cope with the stress and uncertainty of the latest top-down change programme where they will have to reapply for their jobs.  Or running financial wellbeing awareness training whilst not offering a living wage or wage increases that keep up with inflation.

“Bolt-on” by this we mean the universal layering-on of more stuff that employees are expected to engage with, regardless of whether they like the idea or not.  Having free fruit in the office, a laughter station, subsidised gym memberships, or having an app that bombards you with questions, tips and reminders will be great for some of us, but for others it can be impersonal, sometimes seen as tokenistic and by some, even disingenuous.

What is the evidence that the “do more strategy” works?

The providers of bolt-on interventions parade all sorts of seemingly compelling evidence about the human and financial benefits of adopting their services. At the same time, an independent review of all the academic research to date finds that there is little strong evidence that bolt-on initiatives make a significant or enduring difference. The headline finding is that “There is some evidence that workplace interventions can improve mental health and wellbeing outcomes, though the size of the effect is often small. Negative effects of interventions are observed in some instances.”

What do we know about the effectiveness of workplace mental health interventions? Kings College London.

Funnily enough, not too many instances of burnout are attributed to a lack of fresh fruit or insufficient desk yoga sessions


What are the causes of poor wellbeing that work creates?

Thankfully, much more is known about the causes of poor mental wellbeing at work than about the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the interventions intended to improve it.   Interestingly, none of the causes identified are a lack of the things that the “bolt-on” interventions provide.  They are, perhaps unsurprisingly, consistent with the causes of employee disengagement[1] and inversely correlated with the accepted conditions for high levels of intrinsic motivation[2].     



Achieve more by doing less?

Doing less managing that is. Or less command and control managing to be more specific. By significantly reducing or removing the top-down imposition of programmes, initiatives, targets, coercions, superheroes, quotas, deadlines, reporting requirements, rules, ways of working, etc. and allowing more freedoms and autonomy you will be acting directly on the common causes of poor wellbeing and deteriorating mental health of your people. An additional happy consequence is it leads to the release of time, both for those making the demands and those following them. This, in turn invites the question of what to do instead?


Many of us experience being “overwhelmed”; simply too much to do and not enough time.
A direct benefit of the “do less” strategy is that it results in a lightening of the “bureaucratic load” imposed on people…


Devote the freed-up time to develop more human-centred approaches.

What we are suggesting here is not an initiative, it is better management “built-in” as opposed to accessories “bolted-on”.   It is not more work, it is different work, or perhaps “work different”.  Current research and our own observations point towards the following as good preventative practices:

  • Actively working to create a climate of ever-higher levels of psychological safety[1]. That includes people feeling comfortable saying no.
  • Humble leadership[2]. Power distorts relationships, therefore, leaders need to actively work on building open, equal and equitable relationships that put people first.
  • Autonomy and decentralised decision authority – Allowing more freedoms and enabling people to make more of the decisions closer to the action
  • Greater transparency. This is more than just relaxing the access to files and folders on the company’s servers.  It is about leaders and those with influence talking candidly about failures and their own hopes and fears.
  • Create awesome jobs – End-to end jobs where people have the opportunity to see things through to the point where they have an impact.
  • Encourage experimentation.  Creating an environment where there is space and time for “safe to try” experiments and where it’s okay to fail and learn.

But where to start and how?  Getting real change happening in each and every team in just some of these areas can feel daunting.  Added to which many of us have been conditioned to default to a programmatic approach to change, which is exactly what we don’t want to do.

There is another way.  The Vitality Index (VI) identifies for each team in the organisation the three areas of practice that if changed will have the greatest benefit.  Our external and impartial facilitation creates a safe space for the teams to explore the insights and commit to change. The Organisational Vitality Playbook inspires and encourages them to come-up with changes that they are truly bought into.  

What results is ever-better practices and management with the ingredients for your employees to experience better mental wellbeing “built-in”.  How about that for a strategy?


[2] Humble Leadership: the power of relationships, openness and trust. 2018 Edgar Schein, Peter Schein

This is a co-authored post.   

Mark Williams is Mark is a successful FTSE 250 HR Director turned consultant and VitalOrg Associate. 

Ben Simpson is a Co-founder of VitalOrg and leads on client operations in the UK.

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Fix Your Culture before it’s broken

Fix Your Culture before it’s broken

Culture; critical to success and stubborn to shift

How many of you have written a business plan recently? For a new start-up, or a spin-off? Perhaps for a new iteration of your existing business, or a new subsidiary or venture into a new market? Hands up those of you who have included a section on the market, competition, the legal implications, the investment required, the return expected. All of you of course. And how many of you have included an organisation chart, board and ownership structures? Again, pretty much all of you. Now, how many of you have dedicated a section on how it feels to work in your organisation, to be a customer, how decisions are made, what type of conversations you might overhear, how information is shared, how feedback is given? In short, about the culture you intend to create? 

I guess that not many hands are left up by now. And just to be clear, in all business plans I have ever produced – and I have written a lot – it was never part of my thinking either. Which is really peculiar, because if there is one thing crucial to a company’s success while at the same time hugely difficult to change once established, it is culture. And don’t say that culture is something you can’t (pre)determine or influence. Sure, there are intangible elements to it, but as culture is also the result of behaviours, language, processes and other actions, surely it is worth some advance thinking rather than just letting it happen?

There must be a tipping point at which an organisation changes from a start-up to an established organisation, somewhere in the scale-up phase, where this cultural DNA gets established. I like to refer to it as the stem-cell phase, in which an organisation can still take any shape and become any sort of creature it would like to be. But beyond which the roles, processes and habits begin to harden and reinforce each other, become stronger – in a way – and also more difficult to change. 

Reed Hastings, of Netflix fame, learnt this lesson too. Reed’s first business venture pre-Netflix involved a software company called Pure Software. Although in the eyes of most of us still a very successful business, Hastings was frustrated with the loss of innovative spirit in the company as it grew larger. From a nimble, fun, entrepreneurial start-up, its success and resulting growth seemed to inevitably lead to more structure, more processes and procedures and a workforce that would suit that ‘safety-first’ environment best. Although the IPO of the company made Reed a wealthy man, he realised that in order to not end up with the same culture in his next venture, he would have to start out differently. 

So at Netflix, he defined a few very clear principles that he hoped would ensure that the culture he would end up with would be as entrepreneurial and nimble as a start-up, despite its growing into a successful, large outfit. Under the mantra ‘Freedom & Responsibility’ he established principles around trust, transparency, feedback, decision-making, and various others.  Ultimately, and not without some bumps in the road, these principles led to a very different culture, with the nimbleness he was after, and employees free to express their creativity and take ownership for their decisions. Not to mention a highly successful existence as the market leader in video streaming services. 

What could this mean for you? 

Well, if your organisation is a start-up/scale-up and still in its stem-cell phase, this is a good time to ask yourself some probing questions about what kind of organisation you would like to be. Are you happy to follow the conventional route: a nice hierarchy, plenty of policies & procedures, a top-down approach, some semblance of command and control? Then perhaps you will be just fine letting the organisation evolve as it grows. This default position is after all what most of us are familiar with and won’t challenge, even if it comes with the usual side-effects of bureaucracy, low staff engagement and loss of entrepreneurial spirit. 

If that prospect fills you with horror, for instance because you believe that work should be an opportunity for people to express their whole selves, or because the nature of your business is such that your people will be better positioned if they are fully empowered and supported, or because you feel there is a competitive advantage to be had by doing things very differently and engaging the brains of your entire workforce to achieve that, or perhaps because of all of the above… Then there is still time to ask yourself some very fundamental questions and think through:

  • What it should feel like to work in your – future – organisation or to be one of its customers
  • What a good service, product or customer experience looks like, and what that requires from your organisation
  • How – and where – decisions are made and what happens if something goes wrong
  • How people interact with each other and feel psychologically safe 
  • What qualities you look for in your people, and who recruits as well as appraises them
  • Who sets salaries and based on which criteria
  • How you deal with information, sensitive or otherwise 
  •  What the primary skills and behaviours you will be looking for in your management: supportive, coaching? Or fixing, directing, controlling?
  • Etc…

… AS WELL AS how all of these factors work together in harmony so that they reinforce each other and ultimately lead to a successful business in all its aspects.

But what if your organisation is well past its stem-cell phase, is it doomed? Well, probably not. But a fundamental overhaul, a complete change of its culture, behaviours and practices will be a hard and lengthy process. My suggestion would be to not be over-ambitious: start small, with experiments based on what really helps the frontline in delivering better, with teams that are open to change. While at the same time shaping the desired behaviours at the top level of the organisation and start behaving yourself into a new way of thinking. With some luck, change within your teams will begin to take on a momentum of itself and, accelerated by the changed behaviours at the top, starts to nudge other parts of the organisation to move in the same direction. 

Alternatively – and with large, complex organisations I believe this the more viable option – consider spinning out the part of the organisation most keen on cultural change and allow it to find its own path. Properly separated from the mother organisation and securely protected from being pulled back in by her gravitational force, this will give it the best possible chance to press the re-set button on its culture and truly reinvent the way it works. 

So, my message to those of you lucky enough to be part of a nimble, creative start-up, where the CEO makes the coffee and job titles are still pretty meaningless, is this. Make the most of this time to visualise your future self. Picture yourself 5 years from now, with ten or a hundred times more colleagues. And start shaping the cultural building blocks for that organisation now, before it needs fixing.

This Blog was authored by Paul Jansen of Trustworks.  He is passionate about helping organisations realise their full potential by unleashing the capabilities of their people and have built a reputation for introducing Buurtzorg’s concept of ‘self-management’ to many organisations in and outside the UK, predominantly in health and care providers, social enterprises and other organisations. 

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Avoiding the speed wobble as you scale-up

Avoiding the speed wobble as you scale-up

Small is simple

When you were leading a start-up of 20 people, decision making was quick, people genuinely all knew one another and helped each other.  Such was the level of connectedness between people, the need for much in the way of rules and procedures was little to non-existent.   Now that there are over 100 people working for you, the above statements become less true.  It can be an uneasy feeling, people you don’t really know are making decisions on your behalf; duplication and gaps begin to appear; perhaps worst of all, for many people work is not nearly as much fun as it used to be.

You are not alone

If this resonates with you, you are not alone.  The unease that you have about your organisation’s culture since you had >100 on the payroll is usual.  Dunbar’s number is a piece of evolutionary psychology theory which seems to indicate that the “speed-wobble” you are experiencing is very normal and predictable.  Studies of all sorts of human groups over the centuries and all around the globe seem to indicate the presence of a tipping point at around 150 people where the communal dynamic changes profoundly.  There is general agreement that the reason for this is that we humans can only really maintain personalized, caring relationships with that number of people.  Great, but what to do when you need to grow beyond 150?  Good question, and one that we’ll return to…

Some of the inevitabilities of organisational life are not inevitable

Many of us founders understand all too well the realities of corporate life; most of us grew up in big business and many of us set up on our own because big business no longer thrilled us. The instruments of management that are commonplace in those businesses have not changed much at all since they first emerged during the industrial revolution.  Control was, and still is, the de facto purpose.  Hierarchy, functional specialism, rules, procedures, authorisation thresholds, incentives, budgets, decision authority being held by senior people at the centre, and performance reviews are just some of the practices employed in pursuit of the ever-elusive goal of control.   The reality is these practices are much more effective at eroding people’s energy, engagement, commitment, and creativity than they are at gaining control.   Despite bearing the scars of life in over-bureaucratic corporates, many founders feel that layering on the red tape is an inevitability as their business grows.  Spoiler alert: we don’t!


If we set out now to invent the norms and mechanisms of our organisations based on what we know about humans and human performance, what we’d come up with would bear no relation to what we see in most organisations today. 


What if we set out to build our scale-up to be human-centric, not control-centric?

Since the industrial revolution our understanding of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and anthropology has progressed way beyond what was imaginable then.  And yet that scientific evidence is still not being heeded in most organisations today.  A moment of self-refection tells us, in the majority of circumstances, we humans do not respond well to being controlled.  Can you think of a time in your working life where you needed to be controlled to do a good job? Think about that before you adopt more controls; your organisation can be and should be different.

But beware: removing or avoiding bureaucracy tends to leave a void where chaos likes live 

The best way of dealing with this problem is not to treat it as a problem in the first place; “prevention is better than cure” as the old truism goes.  It is control and bureaucracy that exacerbate the unavoidable limits of social intimacy and acquaintance.  You are a young, vibrant, scale-up business, you have got this far without too much in the way of bureaucratic process, you can go a lot further without needing it too.   However, organising with a minimum of bureaucratic control as you grow through the 100s of employees is in and of itself certainly not a recipe for success; it is more likely to bake you a nice big serving of chaos.

So, if not more bureaucracy, then what?

Here we return to the $M question; what should we be doing to avoid the perils of the speed wobble?  I could write a book at this point, but I won’t.  Instead, here is a handful of randomly selected human-centric practices; things that will help maintain a great culture, bring the business results you seek AND avoid the red tape.

Have a “no rules” rule.

Prescriptive rules come with a whole heap of downsides.  They tend to alienate, they reinforce a ‘parent / child’ as opposed to ‘adult to adult’ dynamic, they constrain, and no rule can ever hope to appropriately fit all situations. The alternative approach is to work with people to generate broad guidelines, defined around purpose.   These are more adaptive to the wide variety of situations. Also, they give people the space to use their knowledge and skills to deliver customer value, to innovate through experimentation, to share ideas and resources and to become more closely engaged with the business.

Power to the people; reconnect decision making with the work

If you were given the choice of decisions made on rich, first-hand information or on regurgitated, second-hand information which would you choose?  What if those first-hand decisions were quick, and the one -step-removed decisions slow, which then?  It takes a degree of trust to delegate decision authority, but for those organisations and leaders who actively push the responsibility for decision making towards the action and not hold it tight at the top, there are all sorts of upsides.  Not least of all is trust.  Trust itself is a powerful thing and a two-way street; by demonstrating your trust in others, commitment and loyalty come flooding back in the other direction.

Be super-clear on purpose; let your people determine the how, the when, and the who

Why does your business exist? If each and every person you employ were asked that question, would the responses be strong, consistent with each other and said with some feeling?   If not, then it is your job to make it so.  Purpose also exists at a team and individual level; ask a corresponding question to every team and every role.  What is their purpose, their contribution to the bigger purpose?   A useful tactic is to give people the space to work out the purpose of their own role, and then give them even more space to get on with delivering it.  Try it – it works.

Design for agility, not efficiency.

In those corporates that we loathed and left, ‘designed’ organisation structures distribute resources and the power to assign them – and control the money.  ‘Designed’ organisation processes distribute tasks and the responsibility for delivering them – and create coherence.  Thus ‘design’ is about providing efficiency, stability, predictability and repeatability (and nothing about creating a great place to work).  Efficiency etc. is great for snapshots in time but also does a fantastic job of preventing change and innovation, and in these increasingly uncertain times that can be fatal.  

Regardless of what the org-chart says your organisation is a network of relationships between people, working together in pursuit of the purpose, and by the way, the network looks nothing like the org-chart!   Your job as leader is to nurture that network, create the environment where it can be strong and flourish.    

What on earth does that look like in real life I hear you ask.  It depends, but here are some examples of changes you could try:

  • Avoid functional measures and targets, instead measure “what matters to customers”.  
  • Encourage curiosity about “who could I work with to help improve how this works?”  
  • Help your people see their every-day work through the lens of customer value and not internal performance.  
  • Internally crowd source for the generation and prioritisation of improvement ideas.  
  • Create an inviting and exciting “space” for people with different specialisms to come together and experiment, innovating ways of working AND product / service development ideas. 


“An individual without information can’t take responsibility. An individual with information can’t help but take responsibility.”  Jan Carlzon


Be transparent with everything

The larger the organisation grows, the harder it becomes to prevent unhelpful “them and us” divisions based on power, even if it is informal power.  One way to prevent this is adopting a mantra of radical transparency.   By making all, or very nearly all of the company’s information accessible to all employees is a healthy demonstration of trust, an advantage in itself, it also helps garner wider input to decisions, supports collaboration and nurtures a helpful “big picture” perspective.   There is more to transparency than changing the permissions on electronic files and folders though.   Leaders also need to demonstrate openness and honesty, often about mistakes and other unwelcome news.  Uncomfortable? Quite possibly.  Preferable to hiding stuff and being found out? Almost certainly.

We hope that at least one or two of those has sparked your curiosity.  None of these ideas are without risk, and no one will ever implement them anything like right first time.  My hope is that you get started with something.  

In the speed wobble it is the leader who has the steering, the brakes, and the gas.

Speed wobbles, or even the mild pre-tremors of them can be really scary.  In order to emerge safely on the other side, you need to be brave and bold.   For a leader this can be daunting.  Where to start?  With whom? How to avoid inviting chaos were control once was? There are many things you could do, but what things will work best for your organisation?  And then there is the question of how?

As a leader, would you like to make those decisions based on data and research as opposed to “a stab in the dark and hope for the best”?   Would you like to be able to identify what to change and how to change it based on a proven analysis of your organisation at this moment in time?  What if that precision were not only available for the organisation, but for every team within it? What if that data could be collected within a couple of weeks?  What if teams could start on their change journey within days after that?

If these sorts of benefits have appeal, then The Vitality Index might just be for you.  We look forward to talking things through with you.

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5 Ways to Maintain a Strong Small-firm Culture as You Scale

5 Ways to Maintain a Strong Small-firm Culture as You Scale

In the early days of your startup, good company culture might happen naturally- but as you plan to hire at pace, culture will be something you have to actively curate.

Here’s 5 ways to maintain a small-firm culture as you scale.  

Define and embody your values

When it comes to your company values, you need to practice what you preach.

In your early days when you are making a lot of the hiring decisions yourself, you might have an idea of what’s important to you.

And this might work when you have a team of 10 who all get on, but as you scale, this needs to be translated into a clearly defined set of brand values that are lived by your team.  

Establishing what these values are will not only help you to roll out effective marketing and build relationships with your customers, but it’ll also define your hiring strategy and align your team to your company mission.

Make considered hires

A startup is only as strong as its team, and a bad hire can send shockwaves across your business.

So instead of focusing on bringing in the best talent, look to hire the right talent for your company.

And involve your team in the process. If there’s poor representation in your hiring team, this will be reflected in your future hires.

When it comes to assessing talent, don’t fall into the trap of making snap decisions off the back of CVs. Your best hires will be people who are aligned with your company values- not just those who have attended a big-name school.

Use scorecards to assess each candidate against a pre-determined list of requirements and consider using technical tests and gamified assessments to add another layer of objectivity to your hiring.

Clear communication

In today’s remote and hybrid world, a lot of people don’t want to return to the office full time.

This is a cause for concern for startups trying to establish good culture with teams that have never met face to face.

Establish what methods of communication work for your team and then put this into action. This might be daily team calls, weekly catchups, regular one-to-ones, or even social calls that are in the diary that don’t centre around work.

And with every new hire, make sure that it is clear who to go to with any questions or support. Don’t drop the ball on onboarding just because you’re no longer sat together in an office.

You may not be able to keep up with every individual win from your team, but encourage people to shout about what’s going well, and to celebrate as a team.

Appreciate different people work differently

Not everyone’s cut out to be a leader. And that’s okay.

Understanding your team and taking the time to talk through their progression plans will help you to put the right people in the right positions.

Talk to your team about long-term and short-term plans, and the steps they need to take to get there. Not only is this great for company culture, but it also helps boost retention and employee motivation.

The natural career progression route puts senior team members into leadership or team lead roles. But sometimes this does more harm than good.

The skills involved in software development or design etc. are very different than the skills needed for leadership and people roles.

Not everyone wants to be a leader, and not everyone makes a good leader.

People stay in their jobs because of people. Culture is such a huge part of any role, that making one bad leadership appointment could cost you more than you bargained for.

Remember your why

Every company has a why at its core.

If you’ve done your hiring right, this should be a mission shared by your team.

Scaling your company will never come without its challenges. But keeping your why at the heart of what you do will help keep you on the right track.

And if you want help with your hiring, we’re happy to help.  

This blog was guest authored by Róisín Phelan, content writer at ISL Talent. ISL are an award-winning UK recruitment company who partner with startups and scaleups in their growth journey | Strong teams, built better.

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