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Workplace strategy blog

What do Zambian tomato fields and Modern workplaces have in common? More than you may think …

 

In the 1970s Ernesto Sirolli, a young Italian aid worker began working with villagers near the Zambezi River in Zambia. At once Sirolli was struck by what looked like a huge missed opportunity. He and his team were amazed that the people in this fertile valley had absolutely no agriculture. The solution was simple in their minds: teach people to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini. However, and to their surprise, the local villagers showed no interest.

The NGO decided to pay the villagers to come learn! Remarkably even with a cash incentive to show-up, there was barely a turn out.

Instead of asking why there was no interest, the NGO team said to themselves, "Thank God we are here. Just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation" recounts Sirolli in his book Ripples from the Zambezi.

Of course, everything grew beautifully. Sirolli and team said to the Zambians, "Look how easy agriculture is." Just when the tomatoes ripened, hippos came out of the river and ate everything.

"My God, the hippos!!" Sirolli and his team yelled, and the Zambians said, "Yes, that is why we have no agriculture here."

"Why didn't you tell us?!!"

"You Never Asked"

 

A tale of caution

More than a humorous anecdote, this as a cautionary tale. Far too often, business decisions are made without considering what the end users desire and why they behave a certain way. Organizations invest in new paradigms, new process frameworks, and new designs strategies without actually ever asking those who will use them – what they need?

Working with a large multi-national company recently, I was struck by how similar the facts and circumstances of the case were to the tale of the tomato field in Zambia.

A surplus treadmill

I sat in a workplace that looked like it was picked right out of the movie Office Space. The carpet was gray, the cubicle walls were high, the chairs were creaky and, the windows non-existent. People were struggling to find space to collaborate in. A recent fire had caused the air-conditioning system to malfunction. Some space even had oscillating fans!

Like Sirolli's team, my team thought, "Thank god we are here to save the day!" After all, the company's new workplace was state-of-the art. Open plan seating, ample natural light, lots of space to collaborate. And, apart from fully functioning air-conditioning, the floor had a treadmill desk. Next to it a banner proclaimed 'Standing is the new sitting' (the next generation of 'sitting is the new smoking').

All we as consultants had to do, was convince people to move from their old dilapidated space to this new cutting edge modern workplace. Easy as pie!

And yet, remarkably as we opened our discussion with one of their senior leaders, he said "We are never moving to the new space". I turned to my colleague and He held the same bemused look as I did.

 "Why?" I asked

"There are too many treadmills"

"Too many?! I saw just one"

"Well, that's one too many"

So, what went wrong?

Clearly, no one had asked the business leaders what they wanted from the new space. What was the team's culture, what type of workplace infrastructure would support their needs? If wellness was a larger theme, how can the organization make this theme relevant in the context of the team's business?

What do successful organizations do well?

While there is no 'one size fits all' solution, organizations that are successful in creating and implementing workplace programs, with high adoption rates, have few strategies in common:

  1. They ask, before they assume: 

    Engaging people upfront and understanding their needs is usually a good starting point. Granted, every project may not have the luxury of time or resource to involve every individual. The question that organizations need to answer is, what is higher risk – risk of delay or risk of redoing? The latter is surely a more expensive choice. 

     
  2. They listen, and don't preach: 

    Empathizing with people's needs and listening to their desires is time well spent. Any solution created with this information has greater chance of success than one created without. Organizations fall into the trap of blanket user surveys. While surveys are a good tool when applied tactfully, more often than not, people suffer from survey fatigue. One-on-one discussions with key users are far more insightful and when used together with targeted surveys, increase in effectiveness.

     
  3. They arrive with blank slates, and then activate:

    Organizations that are successful train their people to arrive with no specific ideas or agendas. This does not mean there are no constraints or objectives, rather this means beginning with an inclusive and open mind-set. This ensures people become a significant part of the solution design – the IKEA effect in action. Ready-made solutions are not as highly valued as those that people create themselves.

Creating a solution that sticks

How do you create a workplace program that people enjoy and readily adopt? The answer is simple – involve your people: ask, listen and activate.