Engagement – local heroes

imagesI’m currently doing the North Coast 500. for those not aware, it’s a stunning tour of the North of Scotland, and very much worth checking out.

It’s important to me – Scotland is where I spent the majority of my youth, went to University, and spent time in some of the most stunning scenery in the world. It’s wonderful to be back, and reminds me that most of what we are looking for is right in front of us if we choose to see it; but I digress.

On the way north we called into a distillery ( well, shame not to) and I ended up talking with a number of the staff. It’s a lovely place, that produces iconic whisky, and is at the hub of the (small) local community. Tight community, beautiful product that they take enormous pride in. A recipe one would think for deep engagement. Yet.

It turns out that they were bought a few years ago by a corporate. Said corporate decided that the best returns were to be made by restricting sales of its most iconic product to Asia, where the best prices could be obtained. So far, all so logical, but there seems to have been an unintended consequence. Those I spoke to were truly proud of what they do, and derived huge satisfaction from the local recognition of their skills. This conduit has been removed, and their frustration, anger even was palpable.

Reinforces the thought that has to go into engagement. Separate people from those who admire what they do, no matter the commercial logic, and trouble beckons.

Engagement – we get what we measure

measuring tapeEngagement is now so well established as a prime determinant of performance that is seems to have become a victim of its own success.

We have ways of measuring it, and orthodoxies around what causes it. We believe we understand it.

What if we don’t?

A comparison. In the learning and development world, there is a revolution taking place. Orthodoxy has it, for the last several hundred years, that the “course” is the way for people to learn. The course itself adapted to the rise of technology by going online – the same concept, improved, with added bells and whistles. However, the “course” suffers from a fatal flaw in the era of big data and machine learning. It is aimed at the average. The course is designed for scale, to apply education to large numbers of people economically, consistently and measurably (via qualifications). Problem is, qualifications measure the wrong thing – knowledge, versus what matters – application in the real world under real world conditions.

To take it to an extreme, every course meets the optimum needs of very few people – those closely clustered around the mean. Everyone else is an outlier at varying distances. They’re learning something designed for somebody else.

In the age of compliance that was fine, but now, as we enter a time when we need every shred of originality and creativity (whilst we automate the compliance tasks) it’s downright dangerous.

Perhaps engagement is the same. We fall victim of accepting a number, derived at a point in time, under false circumstances (a survey).

Engagement is as varied as learning. What engages you will not perfectly engage me. Measuring engagement around what’s easy, and reported as a variation on the average will not do.

We need data

Real time, granular, detailed, personal. There is no real reason why we can’t.  Every digital transaction, from a till entry to an order carries potential information. Why can’t we measure peaks and troughs of engagement in the same way as we measure footfall?

The answer of course is that we can – we just don’t. We accept orthodoxy, measurement of what’s easy, and become “wilfully blind

Engagement is vital, and will become more so. Digital engagement is becoming ever better, and in so doing raises the bar. As our automated interactions become better, so the transition to human interaction becomes ever more demanding. Moving from a helpful robot to a miserable human is an instant deal killer.

HR has long been the gatekeeper of engagement, but if we want to access the decision maker, it’s the people with the real time data. All we have to do is design the questions we wish to ask.

For engagement, like education, it’s the end of average, episodic, measurement. If we want to succeed, its time to go real time.


Freehold Engagement

rent or buyHave you ever noticed how small children are “freeholders”?

They engage with everything; they are insatiably curious, inventive and creative. They have no sense of failure, they just learn. They approach whatever they are doing on their own terms. They buy into whatever they do.

And then – they start school, and begin to learn failure, and to measure themselves against someone else’s criteria. When we were in the industrial era, this was understandable – we needed compliance and capability more than creativity. A good career could be carved out of learning a fixed set of skills.

We rapidly sacrifice our curiosity for well rewarded compliance. The further we go, the more “rent” we pay. We move from being freeholders in our lives to tenants. The rent we pay is what we give up to meet the requirement placed upon us by our erstwhile landlords. Those who we allow to assess us.

Up until the mid 1990’s, children’s IQ and creativity increased with each generation, but at that point diverged. IQ continues to increase, but creativity is declining. There are many arguments as to why this might be, but any primary school teacher will probably tell you it’s because they have to teach to the test. They are measured, assessed and rewarded on their classes ability to perform prescribed tasks. Compliance over creativity. Welcome to appraisals.

In the times we are facing, this is dangerous, as well as dispiriting. Machine learning and AI are really, really good at compliance, but not breadth of curiosity.

An algorithm designed to learn about traffic flow patterns doesn’t start up one morning wondering about space travel (but we do).

Algorithms have phenomenal, scary speed and depth, but no instinct for exploration.

Education is different from learning. Education is what we do to others, learning is what we do to ourselves. Education is standardised, measured based on compliance and assessed through qualification. Learning is individual, unique, and. left to its own devices, insurgent and disruptive.

Rented cars are never washed by those who rent them. Tenants expect the landlord to fix the leaky gutters. It’s easy for employees to delegate their training and development to their employer.

The problem with leases however is that they are for a fixed period, after which all rights return to the landlord. The same is becoming true of most conventional jobs and careers.


We rethink the relationship. Treat those we work with as freeholders, there by choice and rent free. Expected and trusted to their best for those they work with, because they can and because they are moved to, not because they are told to.

I was told by a mentor many years ago that if you trust people, they’ll let you down, but that if you don’t, they’ll do you down.

As machine learning and AI start to really roll, compliance based tasks will be history, but those based on curiosity, commitment and creativity – all the hallmarks of engagement – will both flourish, and be in high demand.

The last thing we will want is an organisation full of tenants.

Richard Merrick a coach / catalyst specialising in agile approaches to strategy, innovation and operations.