Blog thoughts

My Plastic-Free Month that might have worked out for an Orang Utan

Inspired by the news around plastic pollution I answered the rallying cry of the Story of Stuff to forego plastic this July.

Not all my friends agreed with the decision. There are the Whats-The-Point crew who argue the simplicity of arguments are misleading. Their views are echoed here. The Go-For-It crew however say that everything is worth trying. Encouraged by their enthusiasm, I went for it.  As its 31st July, I thought I might reflect and share  how I got on.

As a starting point, I bought milk in glass bottles. This is pleasing, but no easy matter. In my case it involved buying a lot of vegetables – all delicious – from Farm Drop.  I got very excited reading that Waitrose had organic jersey milk in bottles. After an exuberant cycle over to a shop I found the bottle was plastic! What???

Farm Drop calls itself the greenest supermarket. I’m not sure. Most of the veg comes plastic free with some mad exceptions, like baking potatoes! I was disappointed to discover that meat is all plastic wrapped so after a first attempt I decided not to buy it. Apparently the issue is regulation re health and safety. So we will all drown in the dying earth, but at least we won’t have food poisoning which is a comfort. The service is great and prices OK given the small producers and  provided you take advantage of special offers.  And yes, before you comment, I know dairy is a questionable industry but I am not there yet.

I am fortunate in Clapham Junction having two great plastic free shops nearby: Hetu is small, friendly and well stocked and even has “alternative” milk in glass bottles; The Source is part of a larger group and feels like it. This has meant for pasta, flour, pulses and oils everything is easy and its amazing how all those cloth bags that are now the rage as freebies come in handy for purchase and storage.  On a recent trip to France I was surprised at how much more widespread plastic free shopping seems to be.

It is easy to wash and clean the house without plastic. Soap Nuts are generally miraculous, plastic-free shampoo bars and homemade cleaning  products are pretty straightforward.

Overall I have thrown away significantly less trash – I haven’t yet filled a bin this month, and only a very small proportion has been plastic. I have also realised how much plastic there is on things when you are thinking about it. Supposedly this is keeping our food fresher, but, while a cucumber might last for two weeks in plastic, does this makes us so much less likely to waste it that the plastic is justified?

And what about the Orang Utan? I hear you ask. Half way through the month  I was talking about plastic free and bemoaning the loss of cracker biscuits, as a result of having to avoid the wrapping. A kind companion pointed out that these should be out of bounds anyway as they contain palm-oil. This led to further research that showed: first, that this oil – or rather its cultivation and harvesting – is probably speeding us towards our doom faster than plastic and is in everything. It often masquerades as “vegetable oil”.  You can also download a PalmOilScan App to help you check.  This conversation led to the marvellous discovery that cracker biscuits take less time to make than to go and buy. Who knew? This  is fast becoming a favourite recipe with a full range of mad flavours possible. Hard not to eat them in one go right out of the oven.

So the upshot of the month? I have cooked more from scratch and enjoyed this. I am not a telly person so cooking bread, biscuits, all those veggies, and  other delights is done with the radio or a spotify selection.  A glass of wine helps too. Making enough to last several meals gets around the extra time and serves my need to fill pans. I have challenged myself to find things to do with the very last veg in the fridge even though it was begging for freedom. I will continue.

And of course as I consider beauty products I have to remember the palm oil: because the Orang Utan is worth it.

Credit: The picture is from Cartoon Brew, produced by Amid Amidi for Greenpeace



Is a team improved without a leader?

Does a team always have to have a leader? I asked this question at recent team coaching workshop. The reaction from fellow participants was thoughtful if generally negative. Some said that the team would be rudderless. Others said all groups need leaders, how else would you get anything done?

This interesting article from the Drucker Foundation 2001 explores the impact when an orchestra – the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – chose not to have a conductor.  Obviously in a team the conductor is the equivalent of the usual business leader, carrying the responsibility for output and performance on his or her broad shoulders so the experiment excited the interest of greats like Drucker. In the article, members of the orchestra observed that the results were surprising. Far from losing direction, turn over, engagement and performance all remained good in spite of the absence of the leadership role.

Further, in 2007  Wiki notes: March 2007, [that] Orpheus became one of the first winners of the Worldwide Award for the Most Democratic Workplaces sponsored by WorldBlu, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based organization specializing in organizational democracy.

Now in 2019 the leaderless orchestra is still going strong. Some argue that their music is better for not being beholden to the over-ruling decision-making of the conductor’s interpretation. You can make your own mind up with some of these clips of their performances on the BBC.

Would your team be better if it were a bit less led?


Could your team be even better?

Do you ever wonder if your team is high performing?  If you are sure it is not, do you know why?

Being in a high performing team can be an exhilarating and memorable working experience. It’s output is more interesting and effective than the individuals can produce alone. The collective voice of a team enables diverse views and multiple talents to support performance. Organisations know that strategic impact and efficiencies result to outweigh the additional time and costs associated with that teamwork.

Given their accepted role in business performance, it is curious that time spent in a team so often looks and feels ineffective and costly. Have you ever been pulled reluctantly from what you have felt was your productive work to go to a team meeting that you couldn’t really see the point of?

There are four key areas that high performing teams do well.  When they do, the experience of working together is meaningful and effective: it has a clear and consistent view of its purpose in relation to business to be delivered. Individual members  have a good understanding of their roles and how they each fit in relation to the purpose of the team. Each member knows what others are doing and they support and challenge each other constructively. Lastly but not least, the team  communicates well to other teams and stakeholders building understanding and trust.

What does this mean in more detail?

1.  A  clear and consistent view of its purpose in relation to the business.

Whether the team has been convened for a short-term project or is one that is part of an established structure, it must have a clearly expressed purpose and measures of success. Together they should understand who requires their work to be done and why. If this purpose can be articulated in one clearly understood sentence, so much the better.

Once the purpose is clear, it is more straightforward to create a workable description of what the team must do and the skills it needs to do it. It may even be clearer what it shouldn’t be doing.

Once the purpose has been recorded, it can be routinely checked for relevance. This is of course the “common vision for high performance” argument put forward and defended by several management authors. In my experience, it’s remarkable how seldom teams actually revisit the question of who they are. As work continues, changing circumstances such as external business challenges and turn over within the team may affect the team.   They may learn that the purpose wasn’t as well defined as they had thought. When teams forget to review their purpose together and with others, unspoken assumptions can develop regarding priorities and accountabilities. Without review, a team can miss an emerging need for a new skills, lose sight of their own changing role and miss opportunities for improvement and success.

2.   A good understanding of their roles and how they fit in relation to the purpose of the team.

At the outset, each role needs to be clearly defined and described in relation to the purpose of the team. Each team member – including the leader – will know what s/he is doing and for what they are to be held to account. In addition, different members may have specific roles with the team that cut across their technical areas. These are typically the personality traits identified by Belbin and similar exercises. The team leader and each team member must be clear about what good performance looks in their specific role and how they will measure it.

If you are a member of a team, are you clear about your role and the measure of your own contribution in making the team successful? If you lead a team have you recently reflected on what that role is intending to do? What would the team be justified in being disappointed with in your performance? What aspect of your personal role-preference is used in this team?

3.  Individual members understand well the roles of others and can support and challenge one another for mutual and collective benefit.

Individual roles are understood by sharing, discussing, constructively challenging and supporting each other’s work, including the leader’s, in relation to team purpose and deliverables. This requires active curiosity and communication in relation to the roles of others.  Internal trust and performance is developed through genuine interest and the space to ask questions and support solution-building.  This exercise  may also highlight missing skills and perspectives or identify when there is unnecessary duplication.  With time and practice, the quality of debate improves and time is better spent.

In my experience, and I admit that I have been guilty of this as a team leader, job roles are often poorly explained and even less well understood.  Team members are seldom required to engage fully with what others are doing – and not doing. Team size is sometimes too big and sometimes incomplete.

How well do you understand the roles of others in your team? Ask each of your team colleagues  to write down their understanding of everyone else’s role and the way their own role can help others in the team succeed: the outcome can be fascinating!

4.     Everyone outside the team who needs to know understands the work of the team and trusts it to perform effectively. 

The quality of communication from the team to other teams and those beyond its boundaries is critical for its own success.  If its purpose is clear and coherent internally, communicating this successfully and with consistency to outsiders becomes more likely.  With clearly worded statements, narratives become be still more consistent.  In turn, with clarity comes greater engagement in the work of the team from those outside.  Everyone wins.

I once worked with a CEO whose organisation listed accountability as one of its core values. I asked him if the staff knew what the Executive Team were doing. Transparency was assured, he told me, as all un-redacted meeting notes were on the organisation intranet. Big deal. Low staff engagement scores and productivity suggested that the intranet wasn’t working its magic. Even if you could find the notes and had the hour to spent wading through them, I suspected that few were any the wiser in relation to the purpose and accountability of that team. More importantly  they were unable to see how the work of the team might be relevant to their own work or contribute to its discussions.

The attributes of an effective team are pretty much the attributes of successful individual leaders too. Because a team is more than one person it needs a little more deliberation to get it right and keep it on track.

May your memories of teams be of great collective performance, not endless meetings with too little to show for it!

First draft published on Linked-in 10th June 2019 H.Dodd

Open a conversation with this team tester

The high performance of teams is an art not a science. That said, like good art, teams combine elements that when done well can enable performance (see this post). Because teams are at the heart of every excellent business they have been studied, measured considered and explored. The following 14 points are a summary of many such investigations and may support the analysis of your team:

  • Clear vision and purpose
  • Identity as a team
  • Composed of the right balance of roles to get the job done
  • Made of skilled and effective individuals clear about their roles
  • Constructive and harmonious relationships within the team
  • Effective leadership
  • Individual learning and development of team members
  • Sound processes
  • Open to change and creative
  • Completion- seeing it through
  • Recognition for success
  • Good internal communications
  • Effective communication to other teams and stakeholders
  • Regular review of performance

How are you doing from 0-20 in each area?

Use the following grid mark with an X where you believe your team sits in each area. This can provide a great opening for a conversation about what GOOD or EVEN BETTER could look like!  Once you’re done ask: Could it be better?  Get in touch to discuss your ideas!

0-4 5-9 10-14 15-20
Unclear Clear purpose
No identity Identity
Unbalanced role Balance of roles
Skills shortage Skilled
Disharmony Harmony
Ineffective leadership Effective leadership
Low L&D High L&D
Poor processes Sound processes
Closed to ideas Open and creative
Nothing gets finished On time completion
Un-recognised Recognised for success
Poor internal comms Effective internal comms
No-one knows what you do The work is understood outside the team
Never review/reflect Regularly review


So, about ski jumping…

I know its the time of cricket and tennis, but you may have read in the earlier blog that I sometimes wonder about ski jumping and stretching yourself for high performance.

You see it on Winter Olympics: a young, brightly smiling, deeply concentrating sportsperson in slim lycra and sub-zero temperatures waves from the top of a high structure. They launch themselves with little apparent concern for life or limb and hurtle down a slope in a tight squat, before being launched into the air. Most land a few moments later with delicacy and skill and come to a graceful halt with their skies in a v shape, turning to wave to the crowd and see their scores. I momentarily feel for their parents and then console myself that the parents probably encouraged them. Performance for them is a matter of life and death. Once launched, there can be no doubt.

My questions are these: How do you come to know you can do a thing that for most of us would be certain death? At what point do you realise that this is the sport for you? Are there piles of dead and or broken would be ski-jumpers offering grim lessons to all trainees? Of course, part of the answer will be in training and skills development, related fitness and interest. In addition, I imagine you start with small jumps and build upwards.

All that said and done, I am guessing, a jump would have to be high enough to enable the flight and landing that keeps it safe. At this point it becomes a leap of faith that you must really really want to take! The beauty of the jump, the smiles on the faces of those that do it and even those that don’t win is testimony to how rewarding it can be.

Is this what is meant by The Stretch Zone? While we might not all aspire to the risk and splendour of ski-jumping, all of us have things we want to do that seem out of reach or make us nervous at the thought. Can we take a leaf from the books of the ski-jumpers who have the skills and have the training and know their stuff and then do it inspite of the risk!

Have you done such a thing? Please share your experiences below! 


Square pegs need a square hole

How often have you heard it said that for a company the people are the most important asset?  Talent acquisition and retention is essential for business success and yet we are failing to tell them what to do and why.

According to yesterday’s People Management update: Three quarters of UK workforce unsure what skills their job requires. (You can read it here).  The study found that many workers neither know which skills they need for their work, nor how best to improve their skills now and for opportunities in the future.  The study size was admittedly small but the confusion described isn’t surprising to me. I would go further and suggest that it is not only that the skills are unclear but, more importantly, the core purpose of roles and what success might look like.  This amounts to a misuse of talent and resources. It could be avoided in my view by a clear description of the role as it relates to the purpose and aspiration of the business where the job sits.

Not knowing what you are supposed to be doing, which of your skills is most appreciated and where you are going from here can be demotivating. Worse it can lead to a loss of business performance, turn-over, costs, missed learning and the loss of talent.  And if you don’t know, it’s because of one of two things: either the boss hasn’t clearly explained it, or, worse, s/he doesn’t really know.

Enter the Job Description

At the heart of this necessary exchange sits a key communication document: the humble Job Description or, JD.  Most commonly in my experience, this important document tends to be pulled out of a drawer when conflicts arise, when a restructure is in the air or a replacement is needed. Often it is overlooked when annual objectives are set and reviewed. Day to day work is allowed to drift from the original phrasing until one day re-reading it comes as a surprise.

It’s odd when companies invest heavily in communication of company strategy and performance for wider marketing purposes, that the the JD, which provides the direct link from the business to the companies “key asset” is often neglected by comparison.   A good JD – do not read ‘long’- serves two important functions. First, when enticing talent and developing the teams, it can clarify leadership minds as they work to attract talent from the marketplace. Second it provides a critical basis for managing and supporting the experience of the post-holder. It enables the development of the role and a democratic basis on which assumptions about the role in relation to business performance can be reviewed.

In reality this key document which is used to access our most expensive and complicated resource – people- is often poorly thought through, poorly written and routinely under-used. Within its lines should be the clear rationale for the investment in relation to the realisation of business aims. These must be described in such a way as to make sense to the holder of the JD and their manager. Even the lowest paid workers will cost several thousand pounds and should be part of the business’s success. Regardless of job type, workers have minds and ideas and initiative that can be used to build improvements to the whole business.

List of tasks or inspiring directions?

The JD I was reviewing was turgid. Swollen with details of stuff to do, and with no clarity of how these activities clustered around the core purpose for doing them. Almost certainly there will be omissions. Hence the need for that awful little catch-all sentence: ‘and anything else the manager might reasonably expect’ which I routinely delete. The hapless job holder, assuming one can be found, and their manager will struggle to define and agree the priorities within the role, wasting important start-up time.  More importantly, if a job holder is held to account on a set of activities the opportunity for discussion on innovation, inventiveness, feedback and change is much harder than against higher level outcomes.

A further study,  CIPD research published in October 2018 found almost half of UK workers reported being mismatched to their roles, with 37 per cent over-skilled and 12 per cent under-skilled. Better work on this key building block could reduce the pain and cost associated with these mis-matches.


Pull the other one

Performance assessment of stand-up comedians is swift and can be harsh. You have to want to do it.

In a moment of madness, I once signed up for a part-time course to learn to be a comedienne. As I paid for the course I felt slightly nauseous. It wasn’t that it was very expensive, rather that, having paid, I knew I would have to go through with it and this was going to take me into a painful place, optimistically called the “stretch zone”. The gods smiled on me when the course was cancelled. They probably smiled on the many who were saved my future performances! I smiled back.  

Nevertheless, at the end of 2018, with family and friends, we paused to consider what we were most grateful for in the year. It was skilful, sharp-witted, satirical, edgy and sometimes rude comedians. Shining lights on the dark places and the taboos, comedians challenge our assumptions and distract our troubled minds from our daily worries. In making us laugh they release endorphins and reduce our stress. We raised our glasses and said thank you!

Stand-Up comedian Nish Kumar in a recent BBC Front Row reflected on the harsh apprenticeship towards fully functioning stand up. He described 5 or 6 years of grim exposure in front of often deeply unforgiving audiences. This is a brutal form of performance management that is a far cry from what most of us experience. The success indicators are uncomplicated: keep their attention; make them laugh; deal with the odd moron effectively; get asked back; get new venues. Like a ski jumper – definitely a question for another blog – you know pretty quickly if you have what it takes.

And, in spite of the brutality, it is a growing sector. There is no shortage of new talent emerging, fuelled from the new hopefuls applying to take to the free slots at comedy clubs and pub venues. What is the attraction? Perhaps for some it is exactly the ‘lion’s pit’ feel that is attractive. For others perhaps it’s a strong vision of the role of comedy in society to make a difference to be used at the edge of political activism. Still others may be doing it for fun and take no heed of whether they are profitable as a result. Except for a wealthy few, it cannot be the money that attracts them as there are surely easier ways to make a living. 

All these brave men and women of stand-up have made an explicit and personal choice to do this work and succeed at it. It is a personal choice and the immediacy of the feedback on the performance is part of the gig. Seems more liberating than the placid annual reviews and unclear messaging that many attempt to improve their performance against.