Ask people how they would feel about the prospect of going through a series of workplace psychology procedures, such as psychometric tests or neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and many of them would react as if they were about to be abducted by aliens.
Handing your mind and personality over to strangers (albeit expert ones) for clinical dissection, with the aim of seeing how well you fit into your job, is a disquieting experience. By and large, people are nervous about being pigeonholed. Not just because they consciously reserve some parts of their personalities for what they do outside office hours – “So how could workplace psychology get the full measure of me anyway?” – but because they would rather not be told: “You are this,” and slotted into a narrow compartment.
Everyone, at some level, yearns to expand their horizons – but having those horizons drawn in by a flurry of academic calculation could risk causing hurt, annoyance or depression.
Enter Lumina – Spark, Leader and Culture
– the system isn’t geared to determining what workers are, but pointing out and illuminating what they could be. It also jettisons the isolating effects that some psychometric tests have on their learners, by encouraging collegiate workplace behaviour – particularly in the co-creation of results. Along the way, it imparts a refreshingly positive message: that just because you, or your boss, may not think you have certain qualities, it doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Crucially, Lumina is also intensely visual. Personal traits are depicted as a spectrum of colours around a wheel. ‘Word clouds’ of adjectives in different font sizes show how learners’ qualities are balanced. And each learner is presented with a unique ‘splash’ graphic, showing the shape of their workplace persona. Having personally taken a version of Spark provided by Lumina practitioners at Inemmo, I can vouch for its practical uses. In many ways, the colour wheel becomes a map, urging you to trek in new directions around your own, personal landscape, and see what kind of results you get.
Lumina was devised by psychometrics expert Stewart Desson. Here, he tells me what inspired him to create it, how it bucks market trends – and what he thinks are the three biggest problems hindering management and leadership today.
Tell me a little about your career background and how you got into devising leadership development tools.
I’ve gone full circle, really, in that I started out doing something called operational research, which no one has heard of now, but in the 1970s and 1980s was very popular – today, it would be called analytics, or big data. I’m highly analytical by nature and want to analyse and create mathematical models, so I started out as a statistician doing lots of number crunching. And I did that at British Airways for a decade, scheduling planes, rostering staff, designing terminals, working on complicated problems and building decision tools. BA developed me as a leader – I was on their graduate programme – and along the way I experienced some really brilliant training… but also, some pretty awful training, including a few dreadful psychometric methods. That inspired me to go into project management, programme management and change management at BA, and then I ran the change programme at Heathrow in their customer services wing for three years.
That must have been a huge job.
Yes, pretty big. Lots of people-management responsibilities, lots of really complicated stakeholders and projects. And that really got me into the psychology of change, and organisational development, or OD. As a consequence of that, I became the sponsor of lots of OD training and recruitment work: I managed one of the recruitment teams, and that got me interested in psychometrics. So much so that I decided to leave. Initially, I formed my own business as a leadership development trainer, coach and OD specialist. After that, I worked in a number of boutique consultancies in leadership development, using psychometrics and coaching. Along the way, I did a Masters in human psychology, and signed up to do a PhD in psychometrics, which I’m doing now. All of that experience has led me to conclude that there is a better way of doing psychometrics.
What would you say the flaws were in the psychometric systems that you experienced?
Many systems are designed by people who have no idea how they’re actually going to be applied to develop leaders and salespeople. Lumina Spark is intended to be used as a catalyst for a dialogue: everything happens through the conversation, and the numbers are not the end in themselves – whereas with many of our competitors, the reverse is true. As we aim to be a catalyst for a dialogue, words are more important. And just in terms of my own journey, I’ve gone from being, in my original career, very analytical, to being a people manager, then into an interest in psychology and change, and then right back around to the analytical side, to see how psychometrics can link up with that. So, that’s been very much a process of integrating my left brain and right brain – or the reductionist, scientific bit of me with the humanistic bit.
What inspired you to create Lumina?
At a commercial level, I believed there was a gap in the market. Everyone told me not to do it because they didn’t think there really was. But my own, personal experience told me otherwise. At various points, I’ve been on the receiving end of poor psychometrics – which I’ve noticed are still popular in the market – in which people are boxed, labelled and limited. But I was also inspired by a creative urge to see whether we could we use infographics in a way that focuses on the learner, rather than the psychologist doing the debriefing. Can we make it a really friendly experience, so the learner can make sense of it, and make meaning? That meaning-making process is key – hence, the word clouds, the splash, and so on.
I found that really useful. Were there any notable leadership gurus or psychology experts that you drew upon when you created Lumina?
There were two sources of inspiration: one is the theory of the Big Five, which has driven brilliant research from numerous academics, so I like to say I’m standing on the shoulders of giants there. In particular, two academics called Costa and McCrea put the Big Five on the map, and the movement they created around it was a huge engine for the thoughts that fed into Lumina. I’m also inspired by Jungian psychology – especially Jung’s idea that we individuate and grow throughout our entire lives, and can project on to people, and have shadows… opposites with which we can actually integrate, with the right approach. That ties into how Lumina embraces paradox, encouraging learners to understand that personal traits they may think of as opposite to their own are not out of reach. So, while Lumina is not wholly Jungian, more like a Big Five system, it does have some Jungian ideas built into it.
What did you want Lumina to offer that isn’t being provided by other, competing systems?
One, it’s personalised; two, it’s customised; three, it’s ‘sticky’ – and four, it’s sustainable. Taking those in turn: the idea behind personalisation is, it’s really unique to you. Your own combination of qualities is like a fingerprint. So it’s all about speaking to the individual, and treating that individual as a totally unique person. Secondly, Spark can be customised to a client’s brand, framework and model so it fits in with the wider, organisational context. Thirdly, because it’s colourful, and contains devices like the wheel and the word-cloud, it’s sticky – which is to say, you remember it. And if you remember it, you’re more likely to use it. And turning to the fourth point on sustainability: we don’t want organisations to be one-trick ponies that pick up occasional tips from sporadic, one-off training courses; we want to design interventions that have lasting effect, so that organisations develop their people and change their culture over time.
What are the differences between Lumina Spark, Lumina Leader and Lumina Culture?
- Spark is the entry point. Spark raises your awareness of who you are. Lumina is Latin for “light” – the system is shedding light – and Spark means we want to ignite a spark for people’s personal, educational development, and make them think, “Who am I?”
- Leader builds on that foundation, exploring how we can we use that knowledge to develop leadership figures and make them not only more engaging, but more transformational. So the application is more specific.
- Culture takes it up a level to encompass the whole organisation: can we use the lens of this system, and the splash diagram, to look at the culture of an entire entity? And can we look at the role of a leader, as defined by Edgar Schein, as someone who shapes the culture? Providing information on the colours and splash of a culture may spur some ideas on how that culture could be shaped.
How did your relationship with Inemmo begin?
We supported them with their work on the Amos Bursary. In the run up to that, Inemmo were looking for a psychometric coaching tool, and they did an exhaustive search of the market and concluded that they wanted something innovative and new, because they were fed up with the tired, outmoded models and didn’t want to label people or box them in. Whatever tool they chose, they wanted it to be aligned with their values. So they found us in their early days, and we worked on the Amos Bursary project together, which won in the Inclusiveness category at the 2014 Association of Business Psychology (ABP) Awards.
How effectively do you think Inemmo imparts the Lumina tools to its learners?
They do brilliantly. There are two things that make it a magical intervention: one is having an innovative product – and Lumina is the most innovative example that doesn’t label people, but creates meaning for them – and two, you need inspirational consultants and facilitators. Joy [Maitland, managing director] and Atiya [Sheikh, director] are those top-of-the-range figures. Put those things together – an innovative product with inspirational consultants who can inspire the learners – and design a great solution with the product worked in: that’s a winning formula.
When you cast your eye over the UK’s organisational scene, what do you consider to be the three biggest problems that are currently hindering the effectiveness of management and leadership?
- People are treated as human doings, instead of human beings That speaks to what Lumina does, in the sense that it gives you a lens for looking at human beings and seeing them not simply as cogs that do tasks – you realise that people are different. So that’s one issue: how do we get managers to have a stronger relationship focus?
- Diversity is undervalued Bosses tend to recruit in their own image, often unconsciously, and we should be doing the opposite of that. We should be valuing diversity and recruiting people who are different to us – that covers differences in gender, in ethnicity, but also in psychology. Having contrasting psychologies in a team will only make it stronger.
- Poor understanding of culture change To make any kind of lasting change work, an organisation needs to change its underlying culture – but leaders and managers are often not equipped to do that, which is the most difficult task of all to execute. However, in the end, it is a leader’s true job.
Just on that third point, why is culture change so difficult? Is it because people are resistant to change, and there’s a mentality of “That’s the way we’ve always done it”?
Yes, things like that – it’s because it takes a while. Once a culture is set, it’s defined as a clutch of norm behaviours, and by nature invisible. So it’s all about trying to change something you can’t touch, and that’s a big challenge. It’s much easier to change a specific system or process, but a culture, which emerges from a consensus between a group of people, often stems from the role-model behaviours of leaders – good or bad. You need a lens for looking at the culture, otherwise you can’t even start. But even if you have a lens, you need to build the skills for using it. As a leader, you’ve got to be aware that you’re shaping the culture with your very actions. So, underpinning that is a need for people to be personally developed, if you want culture change to truly last.
Ideas-sparking image courtesy of Unsplash