Friday, 2 October 2009

At MLab with the Undercover Boss


   Earlier this year, Channel 4 broadcast two documentaries / reality TV programmes featuring senior execs, suitably disguised, spending time with members of their workforce in order to better understand the situation on the ground.

I saw both shows and was impressed with the openness, integrity and attitude of both Andy Edge from Park Resorts and Stephen Martin from Clugston Group.

But broader opinions were divided. Kris Dunn at the HR Capitalist was one of several bloggers questioning the efficacy of, and particularly the environment that had enabled, this approach.

“Could your CEO go undercover to figure out what was going on within the front lines of your company? I've got a couple of reactions to that.  First, if they could do that, the fact that the visibility of your CEO is that low might be part of the problem.  Notice I said "might", because there are multiple ways you could spin that....

So, here's the point when it comes to the CEO going undercover.  Not only did Martin go undercover, but he's going to make a TV show about it.  That raises the ante in the minds of employees.  It's one thing to go undercover, but now you're making a TV show about it.  So work with me here: in the eyes of the employee - you came undercover, brought a film crew under false pretenses, then documented the stuff that was wrong.”


Kris’ post was actually made before the show, and I thought I’d wait until I’d watched the programme to respond to it. Of course, I then forgot to do so. However, I’ve just sat through a presentation made by Martin at MLab - Gary Hamel and Julian Birkinshaw’s Management 2.0 think tank. So here goes.


Taking a decentric view

Some background first of all (the following section provided my summary of Julian Birkinshaw’s presentation):


In their meeting in Half Moon Bay last year, Birkinshaw and Gary Hamel asked their band of revolutionaries to score the series of challenges they had developed (and which then led onto Gary Hamel’s Moon Shots) in two ways:

  • How important is this? (and most people scored the challenge between 8 and 9 out of 10)
  • How much progress have you made (and people scored it between 2 and 3).


The challenges for which there were the greatest difference between importance and progress were:

  • Depoliticise decision making
  • Reduce fear and increase trust
  • Retrain managerial minds
  • Dramatically reduce the pull of the past
  • Expand and exploit diversity.


They had over 1000 qualitative comments explaining the problems in meeting these challenges and in reviewing and coding these, they identified the following main barriers:

  • Limited bandwidth: not enough time and too few resources -19% of comments
  • Old and orthodox thinking- 15%
  • Disincentives to act – fear of change, executive self interest -14%.


What these barriers make clear is that management is the problem and the solution.

One of the reasons for this is that in general, we have little insight into the feelings and views of the people we are managing (fear, confusion, disinterest and distrust all get in the way).

So how do we overcome this lack of insight?

Birkinshaw suggested that we do this by taking a decentric view of the world – trying to understand how management is being perceived from the employee’s POV.

(Evidence for this lack of insight is provided by the fact(?) that the only management books which have been written from the employees’ perspective are ‘Dilbert’ and ‘Who moved my cheese?’!)

This is where Stephen Martin steps in.


The case for going undercover

Martin explained that when he was first approached to do a reality TV show he said no, but the opportunity to gain an understanding of his workforce was just too great.  Normally he feels as if he is in an ivory tower – everything gets filtered through levels of management. He needed to understand how the business was going from employees perspective.

One example Martin gave us was a pay cut that Clugston needed to make recently.  HR had tried to explain this by sending employees a letter!  The business hadn’t understood how this action would be or had been interpreted by its workforce.


So, was this a good idea or not?

Both Martin and Edge, and their businesses, clearly gained from their experience.  Martin identified some previously unknown talent, and made some significant changes, for example around their apprenticeship programme.  Edge, if anything, experienced even deeper revelations, starting the programme thinking that staff simply needed a pay rise and finishing it with a deeper appreciation of the other things that Park Resorts could be to engage and recognise its staff.

But does this justify their deception?

In an ideal world. certainly not.  But many businesses do many worse things with their staff.  If going under cover can help develop a better / decentric perspective on a workforce, and reduce the other damaging things they do, then I’d suggest this may be a worthwhile trade-off.

Of course, the aim must be to go beyond this.  Asda is a good example.  Their former HR Director, David Smith, who also presented at the event, explained that he always used to spend one day a week talking and listening to his staff.

It needs a level of trust to be able to do this.  But I think it shows that there are even better opportunities than going undercover.

Others include:

  • Develop a culture focusing on role vs grade so that people get used to communicating openly
  • Create a shadow Board
  • Find opportunities for reverse mentoring (eg on the use of social media) to encourage two-way relationships
  • Encourage un-moderated social networking within the organisation.


What other ideas would you add to this list?


See my other post on the MLab Engagement event:


And posts on the previous MLab Management 2.0 event:




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