Words That Change Minds
Barry Marlow writes:
The seminar was called Void Management Excellence. The housing association’s void turn-round performance was appalling. I welcomed the invited guests – the maintenance team and the lettings team. They sat together with a senior manager acting as steward between them. The body language said it all. They weren’t talking.
Six months later – they have halved the turn-round time.
My first managerial role was head of allocations and homelessness. Every Wednesday I allocated the council properties. But at 12 noon I had to call the maintenance manager to go through the voids and see what was available. Here, I learned that although allocations was an important job – maintenance held the power. And the keys. If they could find them.
So the controlling element of the entire process was in ‘property’ – not in ‘people’. That day in the seminar room, I realised that nothing had changed in 32 years.
What’s Most Important?
In any communication, it’s not just what’s being delivered that counts – it’s also how it’s received. Sometimes these are called ‘hot buttons’ – the key words and language that turns people on, or off. These ‘negative hot buttons’ reinforce difficulties and obstacles and remind people of issues that stand in the way of something more positive.
This boils down to a motivation thing. In the room, there was an ‘away-from’ motivational feel. Most people were being drawn into crisis mode and only energised by threat. Everyone was able to pinpoint the barriers rather than the advantages.
Charvet talks of the patterns that people attach to words and language. Words are the labels we give to our values, she says. The hot buttons incite an emotional attachment because the words are stored in our personal experiences. Certain words can mean negative things. If unchallenged, this negativity can reveal resistance to change, at best; fear, at worst.
Maintenance and Management: Venus and Mars
What I faced in the seminar room was a battle of negative hot buttons, each filled with obstacles and fear.
I could understand this from my own professional history. I knew that I had made a grave error as a young manager. I resisted the sharing of expertise, thinking it a diluting of professional pride. You see, allocations was the prime function, wasn’t it? Maintenance just got in the way and hung onto the properties too long, didn’t they? The maintenance manager didn’t understand the workings of homelessness priorities. But neither did I appreciate the mysteries of schedules of rates.
We never shared a language. All our hot buttons were negative. It became a battle of wits.
Re-evaluating the Values
What I learned was that the entire service offering had a misconstrued set of values. Our labels were departmental, procedural and were linked selfishly to siloed performance criteria that meant nothing to the customer. Or to each department. We had sectioned ourselves. We were isolated.
And then to protect it – we used professional language to hide behind. Voids.
So, in that seminar room, we played with words and language. I realised immediately that the word ‘void’ meant procedure, timescales, poor performance, blame, turn-round, re-lets, lettable standards, keys, re-charges, costs……
The word ‘void’ required a professional procedural answer. The trouble was, the different departments didn’t match. Both displayed negative hot buttons.
‘Void’ was the problem, not the solution. So we dropped it.
How many Doreens do you have today?
Half an hour in to the seminar, I banned the word ‘void’. I even suggested we have a swear-box, so we could collect for charity every time the word ‘void’ was uttered.
As a substitute, and because I wanted the teams to think for themselves, I also suggested a temporary alternative. So for the next three hours, ‘voids’ were called ‘Doreen’s’. Just don’t ask me why. It was the first name that came into my head.
However, it became a, well, if not hot button, it certainly wasn’t negative. Perhaps it was just a neutral button. But it removed all the negative clothing from the discussion changing room.
Procedural People Patterns
Charvet describes people that have a ‘procedural pattern’ as a way of dealing with things. It’s a natural way of sorting and coping. It’s normal.
But when it’s thrust into something like this, where the procedure is negative and complex, the advantages are discarded. The positivity of a procedural pattern is someone who completes and finishes, but this was being removed or from the voids process.
The Artist Previously Known as Void
So, today, the turn-round in the turn-round performance has been magical. The business is booming. Performance still isn’t among the best in the business, but it’s getting there. But actually that’s not the most important thing.
What’s more important than the number of days empty is the way the performance improved, because this is more sustainable.
The secret? They dropped the word ‘void’. I have no idea what they call the service offer. I think it’s not Doreen, but if there’s something that suits them, that’s fine. They can add any buttons they like to make sure the impact is brilliant both on property standards and on the customer service.
As long as those buttons are hot.