S5E22: Laughter is the Best Medicine for Your Organization

“By injecting humor and levity into our work lives, we give ourselves an opportunity for human connection.” Peter Margaritis

According to some recent research, adding more laughter to the workplace helps improve the organization’s culture. Humor allows people to cope with stress and build relationships and is associated with intelligence and creativity.

Workplace humor is about a positive, light-hearted, open attitude and a playful mindset. One of the best ways to create a competitive advantage is to create a culture that embraces laughter. By injecting humor and levity into our work lives, we give ourselves an opportunity for human connection —something so easily lost in today’s pandemic weary and technology-driven world.

Humor has not been seen as a top leadership characteristic but rather a secondary leadership behavior. However, there is more research evidence that humor should be one of the top leadership behaviors. Incorporating humor into your company culture isn’t that easy, but well worth it. It is essential to understand your own company culture when it comes to humor in the workplace and bring it in a way that fits and enhances the culture and the people.

There is a delicate balance between creating a culture that embraces humor and developing leadership that learns how to use humor to strengthen the organization, and it’s well worth the effort.

S5 E17: Strengths of Running a Collective Intelligence Workshop with Rod Collins

“In rapidly changing times, dexterity to speed is your key to adaptability.” Rod Collins

In today’s episode, we are joined by Rod Collins, a returning guest. Rod’s initial episode was released on February 14th, 2022. The topic of conversation was ‘The Benefits of Flat Organizational Structures.’ Today, our discussion focuses on the strengths of running a collective intelligence workshop when you’re trying to solve problems or coming up with new ideas. If you have not listened to the earlier recording, I highly suggest giving it a listen and then following up with this episode.

Rod is a leading expert on digital transformation in the future of business. He is the host of The Thinking Differently podcast on the C-suite Radio Network, where he explores how technological innovations continue to transform the rules of how successful businesses. Rod is a regular blog contributor on Substack and the author of Wiki Management, a revolutionary new model for a rapidly changing and collaborative world, highlighting the innovative tools and practices used by a new breed of business leaders to sustain extraordinary performance in a world reshaped by digital disruption. Rod is the former chief operating executive of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee program, one of the nation’s largest and most successful business alliances. Under his leadership, the business experienced the most significant five-year growth period in its 60-year history.

A collective intelligence workshop gets a microcosm of the business in the room. Everybody who would touch on the business’s project, process, and initiative must be in the meeting room. We come up with a way to develop good ideas where we put them into groups to discuss their ideas. At the end of the sessions, each table reports the vision they have settled on. As a decision-maker in a rapidly changing world, you want the best picture, which helps move things along.

After identifying the ideas, we open them up to agreements and disagreements because we want creative energy. The members are also allowed to present their grievances to uncover unknowns that always mess up projects. By having the whole system in the room, things get to be handled in real-time and rapidly, and it helps to drive unanimous consensus.

In rapidly changing times, dexterity to speed is your key to adaptability. My experience is that collective intelligence is more significant than one person providing answers, and frequently this is the power of a network. 

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Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Flat Organizations.

I recently interviewed Rod Morris on my podcast, and our discussion centered around “self-managed distributed network corporate structure, a.k.a. flat organizational corporate structure.  I was immediately intrigued by this idea and decided to learn more about it.  You can listen to our interview on February 14, 2022.  

The traditional hierarchy organizational structure has been around since the 1950s, and so have many of the strategies developed to make it work well. As time goes on, though, some of these strategies are becoming less effective, while others are simply out of date. 

What is a flat organization? A company that doesn’t operate on strict hierarchies like most traditional businesses. In these companies, decisions are made at an operational level rather than from senior executives managers in the C-Suite or regional offices with little contact with worksites employees. Everyone should be involved in developing solutions to customer problems, which means that everyone has an equal say about what customers want.

To achieve the right balance between leadership and organization, here are four things you probably didn’t know about flat organizations.

Not all companies can be flat.

Not every business model is suited to a flat structure. Businesses operating in highly regulated industries, for example, may not be able to eliminate hierarchy and authority structures that ensure compliance with rules and laws. In these situations, it’s OK to be flat-ish. But when your company isn’t in a tightly structured industry, using a flatter organization can help you become more agile and responsive while reducing hierarchy-related costs. And if moving to a flatter org seems impossible today, try making room for some small experiments. Start by delegating decisions from your boss; give employees the authority to make confident choices—without requiring permission from higher-ups first—and monitor results closely so you know whether or not those decisions are right for your business. Just because everyone in an organization has titles doesn’t mean they have power over others; they control their roles and responsibilities.

How to start implementing a flat organization

There are numerous advantages to implementing a flat organization, with notable examples from start-ups like Google. Below are tips on how to start your company down that path. In addition, there is also the advice given to companies already moving in that direction; ideas for keeping morale high and employees motivated within non-hierarchical structures. 

Many companies have tried experimenting with flatter organizational structures, but few have mastered it. Yet some organizations are very successful in doing so; they have implemented policies and protocols which have allowed them to maintain a happy employee base while still producing outstanding results – even without bosses monitoring every move or workers jockeying for promotion. Let’s take a look at some of these positive trends. The last few years have seen an increase in companies pushing towards flatter organizational structures; teams where job descriptions focus more on duties than hierarchy. That’s not to say that everyone’s title is Director of Nothing or Head of Indeterminate Anything. Managers might be reduced, and everyone has an equal say regardless of experience level or tenure at the company.

The ten elements of a flat organization

#1. No strict hierarchical layers; 

#2. Everyone is responsible for what everyone does; 

#3. Each employee’s opinion matters, regardless of rank or seniority; 

#4. Decisions are made as close to customers as possible; 

#5. One-size-fits-all isn’t a good approach. 

#6. Teams across geographies come together regularly, if not daily;

#7. Employees can take their leave whenever they want—and are encouraged to do so 

#8. Employees are encouraged to use their initiative and don’t feel micromanaged; if something needs doing, they take care of it—and are rewarded for it in some cases (e.g., bonuses)—

#9. Employees wear many hats: They might be cross-trained to step into roles occupied by colleagues when someone is out sick or on vacation; and 

#10. Collaboration and teamwork are emphasized within functional areas such as marketing or accounting and across available lines such as between engineering and sales

Rules for Successful Collaboration

We all think that we embrace the concept of collaboration, but ego and office politics kill successful collaboration. In a flat organization, these hierarchies collaboration killers rarely exist, and if they do, they are addressed immediately.      

Collaboration is one of the underlying principles in improv leadership.  To achieve a successful partnership, there must be a foundation of respect for the other party; each party is trustworthy, and each party supports the team. If any of these three foundations are missing, collaboration ceases to exist.  

Here is the superpower to improv leadership with this foundation in place – become an active listener where you are focused on the conversation all the while eliminating distractions, such as internal dialog, biases, and the need to be correct, while removing external distractions, like your smartphone for a starter.  

Finally, adopting the Yes! And philosophy where – Yes, I hear what you are saying, And did you consider… The goal is to move the conversation forward positively and collaboratively.  

Flat organizational structures are not for every organization.  However, can your organization adopt a flat-ish approach and become more nimble by distributing the power and authority to others to make decisions without your approval.  In the book, A CEO Only Does Three Things by Trey Taylor, a CEO works on the company culture, hiring the right people, paying attention to the numbers, and putting other decision-making away from the CEO and to those managers responsible for the departmental expectations.  

Power Skills are Hard to Master!

On August 10th, I delivered the keynote address welcoming the Master of Science in Accounting students at Oklahoma State University to the Fall 2021 semester.  The title of my keynote was Improv Is No Joke.  Not something you would expect to be a keynote title to a group of accounting students.  

Prior to the students attendance, I had a conversation with the department head of the school of accounting, Dr. Audrey Gramling.  Dr. Gramling is a huge proponent of developing accounting students’ power skills.  You know, those skills that we commonly refer to as soft skills.  I like to say, ‘we may call them soft skills, but they are very hard to master’.  I assured her that my presentation would focus on these Power Skills.  

Before my keynote began, there was a video message to the students from the dean of the Spears School of Business, Dr. Ken Eastman.  In his welcome to the students, he referenced the Korn Ferry five skills that need to be developed right now: Agility, Creativity, The Service Mindset, Communication, and Leadership.  In other words, the improviser’s mindset.  

Let’s dig deeper into the Korn Ferry blog posting, ‘Five Skills That Need to be Developed Right Now’. Agility, Creativity, The Service Mindset, Communication, and Leadership.

Agility means “being able to adapt quickly to uncertainty and constant change.” That, in and of itself, is improvisation.  The ability to adapt or be agile means focusing on the things that we have control over and letting go of things that we have no control over.  This is accomplished through the philosophy of Yes! And. Accept the premise that is handed to you, and positively add to it.  

Creativity “can be as simple as staying curious and not falling into the trap of “this is how it has always been done.” It also requires two separate and distinct types of thinking, divergent and convergent thinking.  Divergent thinking is the process of coming up with lots of ideas without censoring yourself or others, or saying the dreaded creativity killer, “we can’t do that.” In improv we say, you can’t create and criticize in the same space. Criticism is essential in creativity only after all of the ideas have been vetted. Convergent thinking is the process of analyzing those divergent ideas to determine which ideas can solve the problem at hand. 

The Service Mindset is “having the awareness to adjust the goods and services we provide to customers, in the way they need them, when they need them – this is a critical skill for talent.” To do this effectively, you need to park your ego and listen to what the customer wants, not what you think the customer needs. In improv, it is all about the team, and the customer, and less about ourselves.

Communication is essential ​​in both “written and verbal skills and presenting well in-person and on videoconference, [these] are growing in strategic importance.” The ability to articulate your thoughts and deliver that message in a way that your audience can understand has always been important, even more so when delivering it virtually.  This communication also extends to your body language, both in-person and on Zoom and other virtual platforms. Always present positive body language when speaking or attending any meeting or presentation.  This means no slouched posture, no using your smartphone, and always have your camera on when in a virtual environment, just to name a few.  

Leadership is developing “talent with the ability to reach out and take the initiative, build relationships across the organization, and foster trust and inclusion through behavior and actions – [these are skills] in demand at every level.” Leadership is also about being vulnerable around your team and letting them know when you are wrong.  In improv, it is all about the team and less about you. Our job is to make the individuals on our team look good, support them, and treat them with the highest respect. It is not our job to disrespect them or tear them down. That is just your ego getting in the way. Let your ego sit on the bench for a while and focus on what is best for the team.

The two-hour keynote on improv contained the essence of this Korn Ferry blog, along with helping these accounting students understand that they speak a foreign language called accounting.  Those in the corporate world who are not well versed in the foreign language of accounting have no idea what you are saying.  The sixth critical skill that every accountant, engineer, or financial person needs to develop is a translation of technical language into plain English.  When you master all six of these skills, you have become a well-versed and highly impactful leader within your organization. 

If you would like to discuss this article, please email me at peter@petermargaritis.com

All Ideas Are Important Ideas

Are you looking for a new way to generate ideas to solve your problems? Do you have a culture in place that accepts that all ideas are important ideas? Do you think of yourself as a creative person? What about your team?

David Kelley, CEO of legendary design firm IDEO, spoke about the importance of building creative confidence. He relayed a classmate’s experience early on in elementary school, being ridiculed by a peer about the project he was trying to create. As a result, his classmate immediately shut down and quit the project, feeling discouraged about his peer’s opinion. Kelley went on to talk about how we can often “opt-out” of being creative due to this kind of experience – we tell ourselves that we’re not creative, so, therefore, it’s somehow true. He stressed how wrong this is and how important it is for us to understand and realize that we are all naturally creative – we’re not divided into “creatives” and “non-creatives.”

In creative workshops with accounting professionals, I always stress the need to think about more than just facts. Accountants are very facts-oriented people. The challenge is to get them to see more to their profession than just the facts and figures. Many of them feel just as Kelley described, that they somehow aren’t cut out to be creative or that they aren’t capable.

However, the important thing for all of us in technical professions and a few other professions that are generally considered “not creative” is to realize that – indeed, we are creative! Creativity is, simply put, your ability to generate ideas.  And we all certainly do that, and the more, the better!  So, remember, your involvement in the creative process is just as real and just as important as anyone else’s.

IMPROV BEYOND THE STAGE

Business schools across America have taken note of the importance of idea generation and creative thinking in the business world. For the past several years, programs have started offering courses that help students not only learn ways to promote freer thinking and brainstorming, but to adopt principles of improvisation in order to facilitate this creativity. One of the most powerful principles of improv is found in the practice of the “yes, and…” approach.

Bob Kulhan, an influential promoter of getting improvisation into business schools across America, summed up the idea of “yes, and…” in a Slate article, “When they’re collaborating onstage, improv performers never reject one another’s ideas—they say “yes, and” to accept and build upon each new contribution.” “It’s a total philosophy of creativity,” says Holly Mandel, founder of the performance school Improvolution and its corporate-targeted offshoot Imergence. “Yes, and” creates; while ‘no’ stops the flow.

It’s this “yes, and…” principle of improv that gets ideas churning up and out of people’s heads. This is not only applicable for others, but for ourselves as well. We are often our own harshest critic – a critic that is quick to dismiss our ideas as ‘stupid’.  We need to silence that critic in order for creativity to surface! In reality, there are no stupid ideas – every one of them leads somewhere, and it’s especially important in brainstorming to let all ideas rise. In creativity workshops, I stress the importance that no idea is a bad idea.  All ideas lead to a better idea. Therefore, ALL ideas are important. So, whatever is in your head, let it out!  Even if the inner critic is shouting at you – shout it down and let the idea out! Ideas (good or bad) lead to better ideas. No ideas lead to nothing.

GETTING THOSE IDEAS OUT

Remember, when we are brainstorming ideas, we are looking for quantity not quality. You can’t create and criticize in the same space.  Successful ideation requires divergent thinking, which is a process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Once we have completed the generation of ideas, we then change to convergent thinking. Convergent thinking is where we take those ideas and organize them and take steps to see if we can arrive at the correct solution. In other words, you can now become the critic! 

There are many exercises that you can employ in your brainstorming process. One of my favorites is outrageous opposites.  If you have a problem to solve, step one is to brainstorm traditional approaches in solving the problem.  Step 2 is to brainstorm outrageous ideas in solving the problem.  When you are finished, look at the outrageous ideas and see if there is anything you can expand on.  For example:

Number of participants: 1 – 20

Problem: Recruiting seasoned staff for our company

Traditional approaches: Monster.com adds, Indeed.com ads, hire a headhunter, offer a referral bonus to current staff, etc…

Outrageous approaches: hire a blimp to fly over sporting event, place ads in restrooms, have an open house, create a fun YouTube video about your company, etc…

Review your outrageous approaches and see which ones might actually work for your organization.  There is a regional accounting firm, Withum Smith + Brown, that did fun YouTube videos to help increase the moral in the company.  These were actually so good that seasoned staffed from other accounting firms applied for positions with their firm.  Here is a link to one of those videos https://youtu.be/ZCs7O6cJgiQ.

Another favorite brainstorming exercise is called “Kill the business.” Instead of thinking of ways to grow your business, this is an exercise that focuses on ways to put your company out of business.  Your team is looking at the company’s weaknesses and listing them as a small, medium, or large threat.  Once these weaknesses have been identified and categorized, then answer a couple of questions: 

What did we not think about before that we can see now? 

What could attack us now and how can we quickly eliminate the threat?

Which one is the most important weaknesses that we must fix? 

This is an eye-opening exercise that will uncover opportunities that you may not have discovered using conventional thinking.  

There are a number of resources where you can find brainstorming exercises.  Here are a couple:

  • SmartStorming: The Game-Changing Process for Generating Bigger, Better Ideas. By Keith Harmeyer and Mitchell Rigie. 
  • Improvisation for the Theater, Third Edition, Viola Spolin (these exercises can be debriefed from a business perspective).

IMPLEMENTING A CREATIVE WORKPLACE

In the end, the workplace needs leaders that inspire and encourage the expression of creativity. John Dragoon, CMO of Novell was quoted in Forbes saying, “Truly creative leaders invite disruptive innovation, encourage others to drop outdated approaches and take balanced risks. They are openminded and inventive in expanding their management and communication styles, particularly to engage with a new generation of employees, partners and customers.”

This doesn’t happen overnight, but if the leadership encourages the generation of ideas, some of them are bound to produce impressive results. Not all the ideas are going to work, no matter how much product testing and field work a company conducts. Some ideas will go nowhere, but if you have no ideas, you certainly will go nowhere.

When it comes to creativity and generating ideas, all are needed, and all are wanted. While what comes out might be a bit rough, with a little polishing and fine tuning, the result can be quite extraordinary.

If you would like to discuss having me facilitate a brainstorming session for your organization, contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com and in the subject line put “ALL IDEAS ARE IMPORTANT IDEAS.”