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Humanist Coffee Hour:
How to Translate People Data into Actionable Insights that Drive Culture

By February 4, 2019June 4th, 2019Culture
Ron Schiff


We meet with Ron Schiff, founder and CEO of strategy survey platform, eValue to discuss how to translate people data into actionable insights that drive culture, engagement and results.

Humanist: Ron, you’re a strong proponent of the thinking that organisations don’t get results, people do. Can you expand on this position for us?

Ron: Having a well-designed organisational strategy, having a marketable product or service, and having efficient processes are important. But putting people at the centre of your organisations is something I feel deep down, intuitively, to be the most important factor for success.

I have become increasingly aware that it is people who make organisations great. With this awareness comes the realisation that, by putting people at the heart of strategy, we have to acknowledge the very humanness of this precious resource.

Everything falls to the people within an organisation to implement its strategies, plans and processes, based on their collective efforts and on their relationships – with each other, with their suppliers and with their customers.

When like-minded individuals share a common mission and vision – one that cares for, and connects its people – that you have the potential for creativity, productivity and innovation.

Humanist: Is that where eValue comes in, as a tool to help business leaders make the link between their people and their strategic plans?

Ron: I often cite a Fortune 100 headline that claims that more than 90% of organisations don’t track their key performance indicators. And that only 10% of organisational strategies are ever successfully executed. Kaplan and Norton, of the Balanced Scorecard, maintain that relevant and prompt feedback is vital in the execution of strategy. However, one of the biggest challenges facing business is the overwhelming amount of data to process when identifying and shortlisting priority areas for improvement.

What is really needed is an information-gathering tool that links its content with the organisation’s objectives and goals, providing a systemic view of what is working, and which areas require improvement.

Only a small percentage of traditional surveys leverage an organisation towards fulfilling strategic priorities because they tend to focus, either on things like job satisfaction, or work-life balance, and other respondent-centric elements, or they don’t link what is assessed in the survey to explicit business needs.

However, best-in-class organisations are now insisting that their surveys have a strategic focus in linking employee experiences and engagement levels, with business performance. As a strategic survey, eValue pre-aligns metrics to the business goals. And it does this by highlighting the priority issues, as well as the back-burners. A famous military general once said, “Don’t tell me about the hills and trees on the battlefield – rather tell me which ones are important”.

Humanist: Would you say that the depth, and the granularity of the data provided by an eValue survey, helps eliminate the unconscious, cognitive bias that characterises C-suite decision-making?

Ron: I read once, that in project management, prevailing wisdom prescribes the addition of workers to a project that is seen to be lagging. However, in practice, this tactic may actually slow down development. This example of cognitive management bias was commented on by Stephen Hawking who said, “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge”.

So, while high-level feedback, such as the Net Promotor Score, may serve its purpose as a primary indicator of progress and loyalty, it falls short in answering the “Why” question behind the statistics. Questions like “why are sales down?”, “why is there a distribution bottleneck?” etc.

eValue provides the “why” behind the “what” and adopts a more granular approach in understanding the perception of products, services, lines of business, systems and resources – much like the Balanced Scorecard – all linked back to specific strategic business goals.

As an example of what I mean by the “why” behind the “what”, I remember the “Aha” moment when a client in the motor industry identified a strategic priority that had emerged from the quantitative survey feedback and supporting qualitative text comments provided by eValue. Up until that point, this client had simply not seen the problem – his one-sided perspective had made him overlook it.

However, biases are often too strong to be overcome through feedback alone. Management needs to learn how to suspend its preconceived ideas, concepts and theories, and actually LISTEN to its people.

Ron Schiff and Felicity Hinton

Humanist’s Felicity Hinton talks to Ron Schiff, founder and CEO of eValue, a survey platform that drives strategic action.

Humanist: eValue’s brand positioning – helping business leaders to make better decisions – stems from the latest findings in neuroscience and behavioural science. Can you tell us more?

Ron: I find these two emerging disciplines fascinating. Since the culture of an organisation reflects the aggregate mindset of its people, I believe that sustainable change really takes root when individuals change their thinking patterns, beliefs and behaviours – not only about their jobs, but about themselves.

However, one of the greatest challenges seems to be the transformation of group behaviour and attitudes. We know how challenging it can be to change a structure or process. But when it comes to changing behaviour, we encounter the most complicated thing in the world – human beings. There is nothing more complex, capable and creative, but also potentially conflicting than our own species.

Neuroscience tells that what we experience (the culture, the people, the environment) affects our emotions, which in turn impact what we feel. And what we feel influences our thinking and, ultimately, our behaviour. So, because most of what leads to our behaviour happens in our guts, hearts and brains, the more we understand and apply behaviour-related processes that can rewire our organisational brains, the better.

It all begins with personal AWARENESS and an eValue survey can stimulate group awareness of an organisation’s strategic objectives and key operating requirements.

Humanist: Can we talk about organisational culture for a bit? How important would you say it is to organisational success?

Ron: Well, about as important as the air that we breathe, I’d say. Every organisation has its unique style of working, which contributes to its culture. The beliefs, ideologies, principles and values control the way employees behave among themselves, as well as with people outside the organisation.

Since we spend forty or more hours per week in the workplace, it’s obvious that the culture we experience affects both our working lives, as well as our personal lives. However, building a tangible culture takes time and requires focussed leadership. But the pay-off is a determining factor in the success of the organisation.

For example, having a cohesive workplace culture can promote a sense of unity and understanding towards one another, with improved communication and less internal conflict. A healthy culture encourages employees to stay motivated and loyal towards the organisation and its management. The eValue survey aims to foster both an individual and a collective sense of collaboration, communication and participative feedback.

Humanist: Your words echo an interview I read recently, with Microsoft CEO, Satya Nedalla. He emphasised the need for companies to create the right kind of culture to cultivate new capabilities, innovations and ideas…

Ron: I wish I had all the answers to the way management can sponsor and support those capabilities. It strikes me though, that the primary way would be to give employees a reason to care in the first place, and from there, empower them to make decisions and take action, while removing any fear of rejection or criticism. In other words, to promote a climate of encouragement, trust, recognition and reward.

In addition, I’d say it’s crucial to eliminate unnecessary red tape, to anticipate the competition, to re-inspire any negative ‘black-hats’, and generally, to ease up, are other approaches that might work.

As for innovation, great ideas seldom happen in a vacuum – unless, you’re sitting in a hot bubble bath and your name happens to be Archimedes! Research, observation, experimentation and a willingness to make mistakes are just some of the avenues to explore. Innovative outcomes require innovative approaches.

Humanist: You must be excited by the release, recently, of a new employee engagement model and survey you’ve helped develop, called the “Purpose, Performance, Passion model”. Can you tell us more?

Ron: Yes, this is VERY stimulating work. Working with a mind-blowing team that continues to evolve through a combination of academic research, creative and freethinking, and self-exploration. It’s been, and continues to be, an amazing rollercoaster ride of denial and discovery!

But it became apparent to us that, for every definitive definition of “engagement” out there, there are countless more. Moreover, what motivates one person, one team or one department will differ to another, sometimes daily.

The one (but not the only) common denominator seems to be these three broad channels – Purpose (Meaning) where employees believe that what they do matters in an organisation; Performance (Infrastructure) where the organisation provides the environmental and technical factors necessary for the production of great work – things like inspired leadership, clarity around strategy and goals, responsive and agile organisational structures, ongoing learning and development opportunities, enabling systems and processes, and regular and personalised recognition and rewards. Finally, there is a need for personal Passion (Soul) which stems from the behavioural science we talked about just now – our (sometimes) irrational and emotional feelings, and our energy and enthusiasm. Energy is infectious, and good energy can result in a positive outlook that attracts, engages and retains talent.

Humanist: The ‘yin-yang’ design that differentiates the Purpose, Performance, Passion model speaks to the duality of people’s experience in the workplace – that we are there both as individuals, and as part of the larger, organisational collective. There’s a balance or a harmony at the heart of the Purpose/ Performance Passion/ model. Would you agree?

Ron: Traditionally, we look to the organisation to provide us with a canvas of culture, innovation and technology and environmental factors – together, these will either endear us to the organisation, or alienate us. In the work around our Purpose, Performance, Passion model, as a team, we concluded that employees exist simultaneously as individuals (‘I’) and within a collective (‘we’). The unique ‘Yin-Yang’ design of our model brings these two distinct, yet mutualistic worlds together in a dynamic symbiosis. This symbiosis is a constant and flexible give-and-take between individuals and an organisation to engage across twelve dimensions, towards an outcome-based experience of Purpose, Performance & Passion.

Humanist: So, together, these dimensions make up the totality of the employee and the organisational experience?

Ron: It would be naïve of me to assume that these dimensions represent the “totality” of the combined experience… One day in the future, they might conclude that peanut butter sandwiches are the secret ingredient for awesome employee experience!

However, in seeking a common source of engagement, we felt that we needed to explore beyond extrinsic stimulation, and to look at the interior, intrinsic experience of human emotions. Employee engagement is all about the emotional affinity employees have for a company, through experiences like belonging and personal achievement. An engaged employee is one who feels a sense of connection to the company, its culture, and its well-being. They don’t just work for the company; they are part of the company, and the company is an important part of how they understand and identify themselves.

The eValue survey strives to surface these emotions through simple descriptive and statistical analysis, as well as open-ended text commentary. Of course, it’s not perfect, given that people aren’t always conscious of their emotional state, but at the very least, it shows us how we think and feel.

Humanist: Now that the Purpose, Performance, Passion survey is supported by the eValue platform, clients can receive detailed diagnostics via the insights. But what about remedial direction or action, based on those insights?

Ron: The online eValue reports provide guidelines on how to circumnavigate each of the survey dimensions and address emergent issues. Where requested, we are also able to provide a detailed analysis of the survey results, drawing on 30 years of professional insights on employee motivation and engagement. In practical terms, we advocate a logical approach that includes communicating the results openly, and as soon as possible after the survey. We also advise organisations to set up discussion groups, particularly around areas shown to be in need of improvement, and to make informed, shared decisions. Then, to implement the required actions, and to gather feedback as to the outcome of the remedial actions. Finally, to repeat the survey because development is an iterative and ongoing process.

Humanist: Which brings us back to the connection between people and the business plan. But how can you be sure people are giving their honest opinions about their work, and workplace?

Ron: It’s a strange anomaly that we have to consider honesty as a measure of employee feedback. One of the tenets for employee surveys should be that they are undertaken within a climate of transparency and openness – where people feel free to express themselves without fear of negative repercussions.

Nevertheless, when canvassing for criticism, be it optimistic or otherwise, there will always be some degree of reservation on the respondent side, that their feedback may be used against them. Total anonymity is still cast in doubt by many and, short of sending smoke signals or writing in braille, I suppose that will always be the case.

Depending on an organisation’s culture, I sometimes question whether the insistence on anonymity is, in fact, an indicator in itself. If a fear of repercussion is inherent in your employees, you may be dealing with issues far bigger than the lack of engagement. Actually, you may have a culture problem. If your people are constrained by fear and don’t feel they have the freedom to exchange ideas and forge strategies through constructive feedback and criticism, management may not be leveraging people’s potential.

Humanist: Would you say that it’s important for an organisation to communicate both its need and willingness to change, as a prerequisite for honest feedback from employees?

Ron: What I am saying is that, by reinforcing a culture of openness and protection, management can foster an intellectual maturity of its workforce – one of mutual trust and collaboration. The need is not only whether or not people believe that things can change for the better, and that “the truth shall prevail”, but that it’s equally important that employees fully participate in an organisation that is committed to a collaborative journey with the potential (not even the promise) of success. Above all, it’s vital for organisations to “walk the talk” and to let people see for themselves that their efforts, inputs and suggestions – where practical – are given the attention they deserve.

Humanist: That’s a poignant and deeply philosophical end to our interview, Ron. Thank you.

Ron: Well, I think philosophical concepts, such as power, authority, rights, justice, values, knowledge, rationality, dialogue, responsibility, passion and emotions increasingly figure in management discussions. If the role of management is to provide a basis for appropriate individual and organisational action and behaviour, a closer look at these qualities is needed in order to engage debate towards elevating individual and organisational wisdom.

Humanist: Last question. What’s your favourite coffee, and can I get you one?

Ron: Thank you so much! Without hesitation, Black Ivory Coffee from Northern Thailand. They feed Arabica coffee beans to elephants that pass through its digestive system. Mind you, I am told that it costs around R7 000 per pound because so few beans survive the process!

Felicity Hinton

Felicity Hinton

Felicity Hinton is the founder and chief strategist at Humanist, a culture-change agency that helps transform people for business success. Previously, she worked in human performance solution design, and advertising. She is a certified change manager (UCT), has a Bachelor’s degree in English (Wits), and has won several awards for her business writing, including a Silver Quill.

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