Fully understanding employee engagement

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I’ve been speaking today at a joint event with Avensure on the subject of Employee Engagement.

In my talk I covered why engagement is so important, how to go about measuring it, and a case study of one of our clients who has done a great job of building a culture of engagement.

I also spent quite a bit of time defining engagement, which can mean a lot of different things to different people.

Cause, effect, or something else?

I argue that to use the concept of engagement properly, it’s essential to understand and measure the state itself as distinct from the culture and management practices that cause engagement and the beneficial staff behaviours that result from engagement.
Employee Engagement Avensure SMALLER 2
You need to know the causes of engagement (so that you can improve) and you need to know the outcomes (so that you can prove it’s worth improving), but it’s a mistake to mix those three things together in the measurement or analysis. Be clear about what you’re measuring, and why.

Engaged with…what?

The other subtlety of measuring engagement is that you can be engaged with your job, but not to your employer, and vice versa. Both types of engagement are important, but they can have very different causes and effects. If you love what you do, but hate your employer, what’s to stop you leaving to do the same job somewhere else? We’d expect role engagement to correlate less well to retention than organisational engagement.

On the other hand, you might get on great with your manager and colleagues, but not feel inspired by your role. Employees can be satisfied and engaged with the organisation, but reluctant to fully engage with doing the best possible job for customers. Role engagement can correlate better with productivity and customer quality.

Most jobs have some element of drudgery and some opportunities for self-expression and challenge. It’s those challenges that make roles engaging for the right people, so the importance of organisational engagement is greater for businesses with employees who have limited opportunity for self-expression. If you can’t make them love their job, you can at least make them love you.

A complex picture

To understand the full importance of employee engagement, you need to understand it in all its messy glory. That means having clear, separate, measures of:

  • The causes of engagement
  • Role engagement
  • Organisational engagement
  • The effects of engagement

Put all those together and you have the basis for a sophisticated understanding of your people, and a clear way forward if you choose to invest in building a culture of engagement.

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Stories & science; belief and knowledge

noun_1011170We talk about Storytelling a lot at TLF.

Finding ways to tell better, more compelling, more persuasive stories is essential if you want to achieve difficult, long term, goals such as culture change or improved Customer Experience.

Good stories touch people emotionally, link their day to day decisions with an outcome that means something to them, and persuade them to make change happen.

Stories are deceiving

But stories can also be dangerous. We find narratives so compelling that we rush to invent stories to explain any fact, statistic, or research finding. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this the “Narrative Fallacy”, and data science expert Kaiser Fung reserves a whole category of posts on his blog for what he calls “Story Time“.

Our ability to weave simple explanations for complex, often random, series of events means that the stories we tell ourselves have a feel of inevitability, in hindsight. As Daniel Kahneman suggests in the classic “Thinking, Fast and Slow“:

“…the ultimate test of an explanation is whether it would have made the event predictable in advance.”

So, if making up stories to account for the data we have is flawed, how do we make sense of the world? Science.

Science (a word derived from the Latin scire, “to know”), has developed over centuries as a systematic method for learning about the world. The scientific method is designed to minimise the impact of our cognitive biases, such as making up stories or only noticing things which confirm our beliefs.

Rigorous analysis is the only way to learn robust truths about the world. Every time you (or someone else) come up with an explanation, challenge yourself by asking how you know. If your story is robust, you should have been expecting the finding before you saw it.

Science to learn, stories to teach

Should we give up on storytelling, given that we’re so prone to be misled by it?

Absolutely not. Once we have learned a fundamental truth about the world (through science), we need to communicate that insight to other people. We need to get their attention, persuade them to believe us, and convince them to change what they do.

Too often, in society and in organisations, we see arguments won by people with a simple story over those trying to explain a much more complicated truth. If we want to learn about the world, and use that knowledge to make better decisions, we need to learn to tell better stories with a firm foundation of science at their heart.

On my Data Presentation and Infographics workshop I use this graphic to summarise what I believe the job of a information designer to be:
Triangle

We need the care and objectivity of a scientist to learn important truths, the flair of a graphic designer to engage people’s attention, and the craft of a storyteller to communicate and persuade people to change.

 

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Design is calculating

shapesI’ve been reading a brilliant book called “Shape”, by George Stiny.

One of the arguments that Stiny makes is that when we design with shapes we do a kind of “visual calculating”. It’s very different from the kind of calculating that we do with numbers, but it has a validity of its own.

As one of the blurbs on the back says,

“…Stiny’s book shows us that even the simplest shape is both ambiguous and perfectly clear.”

—Jonathan Cagan

This ambiguity means, for example, that I can add a square to a square and end up with four triangles, rotate the triangles and create a square with a cross through it. That kind of visual play is easy to see, hard to explain in words, and impossible to fully describe in numbers.

I think, by analogy, something similar applies to experience design. It is the emotional heart of a customer experience which matters. Great experiences aren’t made by processes or rules (terrible ones often are), they’re a creative act of design that happens when you interact with customers and empathise deeply with what they want.

It’s almost impossible to describe this process in words or numbers, but we know it when we experience it as customers. That doesn’t mean it lacks rigour, just that it’s a different kind of logic than our models are able to capture. As Stiny says, it’s always personal.

“Seeing and saying what I see are always personal. There are no rote results, whether I copy what I see or call this something else—descriptions don’t count. My eyes have only their own way of knowing. That’s a good reason to calculate, and it’s why calculating works in design.”

—George Stiny

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Empathy in Customer Experience

empathyI often talk about how important empathy is, but I realised the other day that I was using it in two different ways:

1) Empathy as a tool to inform the design of customer experiences

2) Building empathy at the front line as an essential output of insight

Let’s look at both of those in a bit more detail.

Empathy for design

To design good experiences you need to blend a deep understanding of customers with the skills, informed by psychology, to shape the way they feel. Getting that understanding requires in-depth qualitative research to get inside the heads of individual customers, helping you to see the world the way they see it.

When you understand why people behave the way they do, think the way they think, and (most importantly) feel they way they feel, you can design experiences that deliver the feelings you want to create in customers.

Design, to quote from Jon Kolko’s excellent book Well Designed is…

“…a creative process built on a platform of empathy.”

Empathy is a tool you can use to design better experiences.

Empathy at the front line

Improving the customer experience sometimes means making systematic changes to products or processes, but more often it’s a question of changing (or improving the consistency of) decision making at the front line.

Those decisions are driven by two things: your culture (or “service climate”), and the extent to which your people understand customers. If you can help your people empathise with customers, to understand why they’re acting, thinking, and feeling the way they are, then they’re much more likely to make good decisions for customers.

I’m sure we can all think of a topical example of what it looks like when front line staff are totally lacking in empathy.

The best way to build empathy is to bring customers to life with storytelling research communication. Using real customer stories, hearing their voices, seeing their faces, is much more powerful than abstract communication about mean scores and percentages.

Empathy at the front line is necessary to support good decisions.

Two kinds of empathy?

Are these two types of empathy fundamentally different? Not really. The truth is we are all experience designers. The decisions we make, whether grounded in empathy for the customer or making life easy for ourselves, collectively create the customer experience.

You can draw up a vision for the customer journey of the future, grounded in a deep understanding of customers, but if you fail to engage your colleagues at the front line it will never make a difference to customers.

To design effective experiences you need to start by gaining empathy for customers, but you also need to build empathy throughout your organisation.

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The power of metaphors

noun_93083Customer Journey Mapping is, as I tell delegates on my course, just a metaphor.

Then again, the Beatles were “just a band” (at least according to Scroobius Pip).

Metaphors can be incredibly powerful, but also incredibly useful. They help us to understand each other, to reason about things, and to get things done.

To quote the classic Metaphors We Live By:

“…the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”

One of the lessons of the book is about the “conduit metaphor” of communication (that our language is a container into which we put meaning for others to extract). This is important because it supports uses of language which don’t make much sense from a purely logical point of view (e.g. the metaphor “more of form is more of content” leads to phrases such as “he is very very very tall”, which we all understand to imply intensification).

The metaphors we use have an impact on what we think and do. What if we choose a different metaphor? In a classic paper, Michael Reddy suggests that a “toolmaker’s paradigm” would be more helpful, underpinning the importance of mutual effort to communicate ideas effectively. As he says in the paper:

“Human communication will almost always go astray unless real energy is expended” 

These metaphors are normally applied to language, but a similar approach could be taken to visual communication. In a fascinating post, Robert Kosara critiques the “Encoding-Decoding” paradigm for data visualisation.

It’s fairly clear that just like the useful, but flawed, conduit metaphor for language, there may be more than one metaphor for how visual communication works. Kosara explains how people actually read visualisations:

“What do we decode? We like to assume that decoding just reverses the encoding: we read the values from the visualization. But not only don’t we do that, we do many other things that are surprisingly poorly understood.”

In other words, the conduit metaphor for dataviz tends to overlook the active role of the person reading it. Studying how people actually use visualisations may help us to build a better metaphor.

Storytelling and visual communication is not a one-way act – we need a metaphor to reflect the active role of our audiences. 

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Hans Rosling: a great data storyteller

gapminderI was sad to hear, yesterday, that Hans Rosling had passed away.

For anyone interested in telling stories with data, he was an inspiration and an example.

His videos use a lively combination of data, innovative visualisation, and passionate argument. This is one of my favourites: 200 years that changed the world.

The mission he, Ola, and Anna set themselves at Gapminder was to combat ignorance with data; to discover where knowledge gaps exist, and to attack them with fact. He tended to underestimate the importance of his own charm and storytelling skill in engaging the audience not just with the data, but with its significance.

In a world in which news feels increasingly negative, dominated by assertion and prejudice over fact, Hans Rosling was a tremendous force for good. He made us see and acknowledge the progress that has been and is being made.

We could all do with being a bit more like Hans Rosling.

 

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Personas should be portraits, not caricatures

noun_202420Personas are an essential tool when using qualitative research with the customer experience, particularly for journey mapping.

It’s easy to forget the customer as we move from using insight to understand their feelings to a more internal view planning improvements.

Personas help us keep customer needs and motivations front of mind, and preserve the nuances and variety we found with the research.

Can you feel a “but” coming?

You’re right, there’s a big danger with personas that we slide from representing diversity to drawing crude stereotypes. Think in terms of archetypes and range rather than clusters or types.

Good personas are:

  • Grounded in research
  • Archetypes, not stereotypes or clichés
  • Defined by motivations and needs more than demographics
  • Used to challenge process, not put people in boxes

I think there’s a simple test that captures all of these: personas should increase your flexibility in dealing with individual customers, not reduce it.

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From drivers to design thinking

networkDriver analysis is great, isn’t it? It reduces the long list of items on your questionnaire to a few key drivers of satisfaction or NPS. A nice simple conclusion—”these are the things we need to invest in if we want to improve”.

But what if it’s not clear how to improve?

Often the key drivers turn out to be big picture, broad-brush, items. Things like “value” or “being treated as a valued customer” which are more or less proxies for overall satisfaction. Difficult to action.

Looking beyond key drivers, there’s a lot of insight to be gained by looking at how all your items relate to each other, as well as to overall satisfaction and NPS. Those correlations, best studied as either a correlogram (one option below) or network diagram (top right) can tell you a lot, without requiring much in the way of assumptions about the data.
correlogram
In particular, examining the links between specific items can support a design thinking approach to improving the customer experience based on a more detailed understanding of how your customers see the experiences you create.

Your experiences have a lot of moving parts—don’t you think you ought to know how they mesh together?

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The Graphic Gameplan

noun_75258My job is to give clients actionable insight about their customers.

“Actionable insight”—what a dreadful phrase! Can we make it a bit less management speak?

My job is to help clients understand what their customers want so that they can do a better job of giving it to them.

The trouble is that understanding is only the first step. If we stop at understanding we’re likely to do more harm than good. I like to quote Bruce Lee:

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply.

Willing is not enough; we must do.”

Bruce Lee

So how do we turn our knowledge about customers, and our willingness to improve, into action?

You need three things: top-level commitment, buy-in from throughout the business, and ideas. To get them, you’re going to need to go further than simply presenting the results of your customer insight—you need to involve your colleagues in creating an action plan.

That means some kind of workshop. Workshops are great, but they can often be feelgood days that generate loads of ideas and enthusiasm with little in the way of concrete results.

Good workshops require structure. Build exercises to explore and generate ideas, but finish with a converging exercise in order to deliver a clear way forward. ‘Gamestorming’ is a great book I turn to when I need an exercise for a workshop.

workshop

One of my favourites for helping people move from insight to action is the “Graphic Gameplan“. The beauty of this exercise is that it forces participants to break ideas for improving the customer experience into specific actions, slotting them into a strategic timeline view. It leaves you with momentum, accountability, and a clear vision of what is happening next.

If you don’t have a gameplan for improving your customer experience, maybe it’s time to organise a workshop?

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Is it time for zero-based customer insight?

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There’s a debate in marketing about the merits of zero-based budgeting.

It doesn’t necessarily mean spending less. What it does mean is figuring out, from scratch, what you need to spend in order to achieve specific returns.

Which sounds pretty sensible.

Mark Ritson discusses Unilever’s announcement that they are adopting a zero-based budgeting approach to marketing. His summary is useful:

The zero base approach is not a cost cutting method or belt-tightening approach. It’s just a better, more strategic way to plan your marketing. First you forget about the total spend and where that spend was allocated last year – hence the zero. Second, the marketing team do their research, construct their marketing plan and conclude it with a budget in which they ask for a certain amount of investment and promise a specific return for that investment. Senior management review the plan and either grant the amount or push back and ask the team to make changes.

The appeal to the business is obvious—it forces departments to be accountable for their spend, and do the work to justify it. It seems to me that we should think about working towards a zero-based model for customer insight.

Does that sound like a turkey voting for Christmas?

It might be if we all switched overnight, but I think the principle of accountability and being able to demonstrate return is important if we want customer experience to be taken seriously.

It’s important, I think, to make sure that budgeting doesn’t lead to prioritising short term returns. If a marketing team spends its budget on vouchers rather than brand-building then they’re almost guaranteed to see an impact on sales in the short term. But what’s the long term benefit?

Similarly, for customer experience, you need to understand the links between investment in particular transactional journeys and longer term customer attitudes and behaviours. The benefits can take a long time to filter through; but they’re real, and they’re measurable.

It’s up to us to start proving it.

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