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The perfect organisation: a recipe

What does the perfect organisation look like? We don’t mean the obvious things – chocolates pens, two-hour working days, and a ban on Coldplay on the office radio. We mean equality-wise.

People are always asking us what the ‘best’ organisations are doing in terms of training, staff networks, board representation, and so on. The truth is, there isn’t a recipe for a perfect organisation. It just doesn’t work like that. Every organisation is unique, with its own history, staff profile, customer base, and so on. What’s best for a hospital in Cheshire will be completely different to what’s best for a FTSE 100 company in London, for example.

But even if there aren’t Ikea-style assembly instructions, this doesn’t mean transforming your workplace needs to be a shot in the dark. We’ve worked with hundreds of organisations and noticed the most successful ones do certain key things. So – bearing in mind this is really a sort of checklist – here are some pointers to creating your own ‘perfect’ organisation.

Be clear about what you want. This is crucial. Ask yourself, ‘what is it I am trying to achieve?’ Many organisations want to do one thing – say, improve the experience of staff or clients – and actually then set out to do something completely different – like increase the diversity of their board. These are two different things that need two different responses. We often use the terms ‘inclusion’, ‘diversity’, and ‘equality’ interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Pursuing diversity, for example, is a poor way of creating a fairer, more inclusive workplace. This is why it’s important to be clear about your goal: changing processes means focusing on those processes. Changing behaviours means…well, you get the picture.

It’s also important not to be too swayed by kitemarks, sectoral trends, and the latest fads. For some reason, certain types of initiative or activity can suddenly come into fashion. Don’t ask us why, it’s just one of those mysteries. But these actions aren’t always the ones individual organisations need to focus on. Your organisation has its own unique challenges, and it’s often more effective to take a small-scale approach that targets those than to pursue a wider range of activities that won’t necessarily have a meaningful impact.

Understand what unfairness ‘looks like’ in your organisation. Once you’ve understood precisely what issues you want to address you can engage people to understand how unfairness manifests itself during the day-to-day course of people’s work. It is important to note that a lot of what comes out of these discussions may appear trivial and slight. Nevertheless, the accumulation of all these little actions can have a big impact. For example, when we’re conducting cultural audits in organisations, one of the most common complaints from marginalised staff is that managers don’t say ‘good morning’ to them, or don’t smile, or make a face when they ask for annual leave. People know when they’re being treated differently, even though exclusion can take a hundred different forms.

This is just one example of what you might be looking out for. When we talked to patients about what the promotion of human rights ‘looks like’ in cancer care, we got a completely different set of responses. This is why it’s important to be clear about what you’re trying to change.

Help people understand what they can do differently in their day-to-day roles. Use these findings to develop a series of simple, clear ‘rules’ that your organisation expects staff to adhere to. The consultation stage will throw up a lot of ‘do nots’ – people find it easier to say when they haven’t been treated fairly than when they have – but the rules should nevertheless be positive: they should express behaviours staff should do.

It’s important to support people so they can see how these rules actually reflect their own core values. What motivates people will change from sector to sector, and from organisation to organisation. Generally speaking, however, people want to treat others fairly – they just don’t always know how.

(If you’d like some concrete examples of what we mean here, have a look at the Macmillan Values Standard which we helped develop. This guide shows the standard in action.)

Give people permission to try new things. Having devised minimum standards that your organisation expects of people, give them the resources and training they need to uphold them.

‘Resources’ doesn’t just mean physical things – it means moral support too. People need ‘permission’ to do new things. Articulating a series of standards or rules is one way to give people permission, but this needs to be constantly reinforced. Change ruffles feathers: it creates resistance. People should know from the get-go that managers will support them to deal with challenge to changes they are introducing. Staff should be confident that time spent pursuing equality – within the framework the organisation has set out – will not be viewed negatively.

It is also important to realise that organisations and people will make mistakes. People will do things that don’t work and don’t have an impact. You will come up against dead ends. This should be recognised at the outset and incorporated into a process of continual learning for the organisation. Mistakes shouldn’t be allowed to dampen people’s enthusiasm for the change process.

Hold people to account on what’s important. Soooo important. The best organisations monitor the extent to which their standards are being met, both through normal performance management processes and through regular consultation with staff (and, if appropriate, service users or clients). Indicators should reflect what is important to you: they should relate directly to the goals you identified right at the start of the change process. Leaders monitoring key behaviours and holding people to account on them is one of the key ways to communicate exactly what your organisation values, and therefore a key way of giving people ‘permission’.

Staff must be held accountable for their actions around equality, but this doesn’t mean accountability procedures have to be punitive. Instead, organisations may benefit from supporting underperforming staff by connecting them with others working on the same agenda.

Finally, recognise that the perfect organisation doesn’t exist. Some organisations are doing elements of the above, but no one single organisation is doing all of it. And remember, the above is a list of ingredients: it’s not a recipe. No one knows how long things should be done for, the exact content training should have, the best indicators to monitor for, and so on. The best organisations we speak to are constantly learning. (In fact, they’re learning from each other, so making and maintaining external links may be one of the most important things on your to do list.)


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