How to organise your energy

The dynamic of a workplace - from the high octane to the sleepy - is apparent as soon as you walk in, so why isn't more attention paid to this crucial element of corporate success?

by Robert Rowland Smith
Last Updated: 28 Oct 2013

We've grown accustomed to the idea that to get an economy going you need more than tax incentives, low interest rates or quantitative easing. You need confidence.

Confidence is the yeast you add to the basic ingredients to make the bread rise. And if confidence is the magic ingredient required at the macro-economic level, its micro equivalent at the company level is energy.

You can set the perfect strategy, fine-tune your business processes and restructure every division, but without energy the whole thing risks falling flat.

Unfortunately, energy, like confidence, doesn't yield itself up easily. It's invisible, intangible and odourless. And yet we all know it when we come across it.

I have been advising companies for more than 15 years and must have been on the inside of at least a hundred organisations. In each one, the energy has been apparent from the moment I've walked in.

Whether it was in the government agency where the atmosphere was deathly or the media company where there was a bounce in everyone's stride, energy is in the air and can't be denied. For sure, coding it scientifically will never be straightforward, but organisational energy exists, and it varies dramatically from company to company.

To think of organisational energy solely in terms of quantity, however, would be too crude. High energy levels aren't always good. Think of the hyperactive child who can't settle to any task.

Equally, low energy doesn't have to be bad. It's only when we're calm, for example, that we can properly reflect and learn. So let's not jump to the conclusion that the more energy an organisation has, the better.

Besides, energy has a basic calibration with the nature of the business concerned. Few people would want a high-energy firm of funeral directors; and a low-energy theatre company for kids would assuredly put its punters off.

The question an organisation should ask itself, therefore, is not 'How do we raise the energy levels around here?'

 You can in any case boost energy and still find that performance flatlines. I remember working with a company whose young new CEO got everyone fired up and talking about ideas. The energy rose rapidly and went into daily brainstorms.

But they led nowhere: the problem being that this was a bog-standard delivery business. Any surplus energy should have gone into operational excellence, not into creativity that had no chance of being applied.

Better, therefore, to ask two different questions instead: 'How much energy do we need?' and 'Where should we direct it?'

Say you're a Silicon Roundabout start-up. Start-ups require a huge amount of energy because everything has to be put in place very quickly: products, premises, people, marketing, technology, processes.

But the danger is that the energy is not directed. They hire more people than they need, or expend far less effort on PR than is wise.

Now imagine you're running London Underground, an organisation that knows exactly where to direct what little energy it has: getting the trains running on time with as few signalling problems as possible and the right capacity at rush hour. But as a passenger you feel this is an organisation that's literally going through the motions.

The prospect of innovation seems utterly remote. What you're experiencing is the combination of low amounts of energy with high amounts of direction.

Energy sounds like a precious resource, but first we have to understand what it's for. There's no point having energy when you don't need it. Feeling energetic when you need to go to sleep, for example, only results in insomnia.

Of course, organisations will always need a certain amount of energy to do their daily business, but a real boost of energy is required only when a significant forward movement needs to be made. A good example of this is when a powerful leader leaves the stage and there's a question as to whether the organisation can keep the momentum going.

Think of Steve Jobs or Sir Alex Ferguson. With these legendary figures gone from their leadership roles, both Apple and Manchester United have found themselves at a vulnerable point on their energy graph. Both require a significant injection of energy if they are to maintain, let alone exceed, the levels of performance of the previous regime.

Now, a typical response that organisations make at vital junctures like this when a new release of energy is demanded is to turn to either strategy or innovation. Both have their merits, but they are not the be-all and end-all.

For example, I was working earlier this year with the new chief executive of a large public sector organisation. His first act was to redo the strategy, root and branch. Although on paper the new strategy was sound as a pound, it failed to energise the people who had to deliver it.

As for innovation, it tends to produce a short-term spike in energy before things settle back to normal. This is the syndrome that Apple is now caught in, as it has become a slave to its own product announcements: spikes of energy in the midst of a creeping feeling that the company has lost its way.

The reason both strategy and innovation fail to stimulate significant organisational energy is that both are cognitive. In other words, both are created in the head. Strategy is based on thoughts and innovation on ideas.

But energy is not a cognitive phenomenon. It is felt in the gut. This means that if we want to get some energy going in our businesses, we need to move beyond strategy and innovation and towards what I nickname 'ennovation'. The 'e' of 'ennovation' refers to the gut-level energy necessary if a business is serious about moving forward, about refreshing and even reinventing itself for its next phase.

Most businesses make the mistake when trying to find the energy to 'ennovate' or reinvent themselves, of looking exclusively to the future. For example, I remember working with a law firm that had endless awaydays on future strategy.

After each one nothing changed. They believed that the future would provide the source of all their energy, but this is not the case and never can be. The future is an abstraction, and only by finding the energy to work on the present can you improve your future.

The law firm did have one key requirement for reinventing itself, however - it had worked out where it wanted to go. Its fantasy vision was to change from being a firm of premium lawyers charging premium fees to premium clients into a volume provider of legal services at lower cost to all and sundry.

Unfortunately the firm's fantasy created more paralysis than action. What's required is a counterweight, more grounded in reality. You might think the past is an odd place to look for energy, but all organisations began there. And there's no greater energy than that which creates something where there was nothing.

I was recently working with a manufacturing company that was looking to reinvent itself and had put in place a change programme to support that aim. But only when we connected the future to the past, going into the company archives and circulating old newspaper clippings and stories about the founders and their original ambitions, did the programme really come alive for employees.

Finally, organisational energy can be derived from another equally unlikely source: the mundane demands of everyday business life. Returning to the law firm example, its lawyers had no appetite for the nature of the work required by their vision of becoming a large-scale firm.

They preferred giving high-end legal counsel and thus always settled back into their familiar, comfortable, low-energy ways.

If you can balance these four elements - the future with the past, and fantasy with reality - you're on your way to unlocking organisational energy.

And, as the long-waited recovery begins to take hold and economic confidence returns, it's the organisations that use their energy most wisely that will come out on top.

Four questions to help release your organisational energy

  • How much are you doing in the present to secure a good future?
  • How well connected are you to your past?
  • How much of a vision do you have to inspire you?
  • How ready are you to embrace the work you will have to do to achieve that vision?

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