Where are we going?

objectives Do you know where you are trying to get to? Are you sure? Could you write down clearly and succinctly what the output will be, or what success would look like? Are your objectives SMART (or at least clear)? Often people fight shy of being that specific. The trouble is, when you are, success or failure become black and white. And that raises the stakes. Or it may be that they just find it too hard to write such a specification – and it is hard. It forces you think through options and to make choices, often on inadequate information, and that requires a lot of confidence. Leaving things a bit vague is more comfortable on both counts, but also makes it much less likely that you will deliver what you really wanted to. That is partly because you have less motivation to do so, but it is also partly because clarity helps everyone in the team to see the contribution they need to make. If the overall objectives are not clear, different people will interpret them differently, and their contributions will not necessarily all be exactly what is needed. It also provides a poor example for them to follow – it means that each of their contributions is also more likely to have a vague specification, and so may deviate even further from requirements. Setting clear objectives is the first essential of leadership: if you don’t know exactly where you want to go, how can you lead other people on the journey? As the song goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there”.

Managing clever people

At the beginning of my career, I worked as a University lecturer. Academic institutions are unusual environments to work in, because naturally they have a large proportion of extremely clever people on the staff. And being extremely clever, vital though it is in a university (and many other organisations), often brings with it other less useful characteristics. Managing clever people can be very challenging! People who know they are clever are often extremely confident that they know, or can find, the right answer to any problem. They can be very forceful in arguing their point of view! It is probably true that they can do it. But just because they can find the right answer does not necessarily mean that they should: it is usually quicker, cheaper, and probably better to ask an expert in that particular area. I particularly recall some rather clunky community engagement events that the University decided to organise, without (as far as I could tell) getting any professional advice on the best approach. In another organisation – this time more industrially-focussed but still with a large preponderance of clever people – I was astonished to find that rather than buying ‘off-the-shelf’ milk-floats for transporting stores around the large site, the engineering workshop designed and built its own. In both cases, I’m talking about a long time ago, and I’m sure things have changed greatly since those days, but these examples illustrate the risk. All successful organisations have things that they are very good at doing, or risks that they are very good at managing. Those are the things that it is essential they concentrate on, and devote efforts to doing even better. They also need to do things that they will never do often enough to be experts in. Wise organisations subcontract these to people who do them all the time. However, organisations which are full of very clever people seem to find this kind of wisdom particularly challenging.


I think there is a combination of a high need for control, and a fear of being taken advantage of by those experts. Perhaps this fear is heightened by knowing how easily they could do just that with non-specialists in their own fields. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, the competition for status among clever people may be fuelled by being seen to be clever. When there is a high proportion of clever people all trying to outdo each other, this can be a real problem! I don’t think that there are any easy solutions, but recognising that managing clever people has some special challenges is a good start. When clever people dominate an organisation, a high level of ‘democratic’ management is often expected, and only equally clever managers will be given acceptance. Usually this means many come from the same professional background, which can also limit the spread of new ideas from elsewhere. Management teams need to pay special attention to their ability to find the right new ideas, and to influence clever staff to accept them.

Change gear

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240"]get attention Central London Traffic (Photo credit: oatsy40)[/caption] Driving through London a day or two ago, I was amazed to see in front of me an advertising van unlike any I had ever seen before. Half of the back of the van was taken up with a large screen, repeatedly showing a short advertising video clip, obviously in full view of the drivers behind. It certainly got my attention! Call me old-fashioned, but this seemed to me to be an innovation too far. Driving in London is hard enough, with heavy traffic, bicycles, pedestrians, buses stopping and starting, complex road layouts etc. to pay attention to, without adding advertising which is so clearly going to distract drivers. Health and Safety rules have a bad reputation, but this seemed to me to be something they really should apply to. But it did remind me that if you want something to grab someone’s attention, you should make it move! Years ago (even before the first PCs), I was a University Lecturer, and had to put on a display of some research for an open day. Nearly all the displays people made were static. Even though my subject was hard to make exciting for the public, and though my animated display on an early computer screen was small and very crude (in those days anything more would have been very hard), the fact that it moved and had a very simple coordinated sound track attracted far more visitors than most other displays.

Change gets peoples' attention!

Change is like that too. It moves, so it gets peoples' attention, unfortunately more often negatively than positively – like the advertising van did for me. But if you can find a way to make people curious, and if possible engage them in the exploration of the change, the results can be quite different!

Don’t throw out the baby!

complexity Reading reports on the meeting on complexity in organisations that took place in Vienna last week, I started reflecting on my own experiences of complexity. As a lapsed physicist, I know that it is a fundamental law of nature that disorder (which is often much the same as complexity) tends to increase with time. The only way to reverse this trend is to do work – and even then the reduction in disorder is only local. I can’t think of any experiences that suggest that this is not just as true for organisations as for nature in general! Most managers focus mainly on what their own areas need. They seek to improve their areas by doing work (designing and introducing changes of many kinds), and often succeed – but frequently the local success may be at the expense of making the joining up with neighbouring areas worse: overall, complexity may have increased as a result of their work, just as the laws of thermodynamics say it should!

Agree key principles to manage complexity

Avoiding that problem is not easy, and only partial solutions are possible – managers have to be trusted to manage. It can help, however, to provide a top-down framework designed to fix key principles organisation-wide, and then to allow managers the freedom to develop local solutions to problems within that framework. A self-consistent set of
  • Vision and values
  • Strategic objectives
  • Simple and clear structure for decision making
  • Delegated authorities and accountabilities
  • Key metrics
goes a long way to keeping things joined-up, by focusing on those aspects that really matter, but not worrying about controlling the rest. Probably all effective organisations do this at some level, even though the frameworks will not all be equally good. A jar of air contains zillions of molecules, all moving at high speeds, and it is impossible know the complex movements of even one molecule, let alone all of them. But that does not stop us being able to measure the key parameters of pressure, temperature and volume, which are the net result of all those movements. So long as we can define the things we really need to measure, the complexity of the rest does not matter. The challenge is to get that right – and not to throw the baby out with the bath-water in an attempt to over-simplify.

You’re late!

criticism A few years ago, I was attending a meeting which was a few minutes’ drive from my office. I left a little later than I intended, and although the roads were quiet, when I arrived I had to park further way from my destination than I had expected. The extra walk meant that I arrived at the meeting, which had started promptly, a couple of minutes late. Naturally, I apologised for my lateness and explained what had happened as I sat down, thinking little of it. It was only two minutes after all. I was completely taken aback when the chair of the meeting replied in an angry voice “Two minutes can cost a life”. I should explain that he was an ex-military man, and I can understand that being late for a rendez-vous on active service could have very serious consequences. However, not only were no lives going to be lost as a result of my lateness to that meeting; no lives were likely to be lost as a result of anyone there being late to any meeting, ever.

Use criticism carefully

I might have been held up by a phone call to an important customer; I might have been resolving an important safety issue; I don’t remember.  In business we are always having to balance multiple priorities, and I probably made a priority choice that I felt was in the best interests of the company. So first of all, it is always a good idea to understand the reasons for what has happened before criticising. But just as important is to make the criticism (if there needs to be one) commensurate with the offence and appropriate to the circumstances. Criticising me in a way that might conceivably have been appropriate in the army, but took no account of a completely different context, diminished my respect for the manager and left me feeling angry at his irrationality. As a result, at the very least it reduced the value of my contribution to that meeting, while I fumed; it probably had much longer-term consequences for our wider relationship. Criticism is a dangerous weapon. Used carelessly, the unintended consequences can be serious.

Getting very wet

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]team leadership Frigate Type M silhouette (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] When I was at school I was in the cadets. One of the exciting consequences was that we would sometimes be taken off for a weekend to do training exercises at a Naval base, and one exercise we did taught me important lessons about team leadership which stick firmly in my memory to this day. The exercise was to practice damage control on a warship. Not a real ship, of course, but a mocked-up ship’s compartment on the shore. At least there was no danger of sinking! About a dozen of us were shut in the compartment with all the tools and materials we needed to stop the leaks. Then they turned the taps on. No ordinary taps - the water level in the compartment was rising inches every minute. What happened next amazed me. Out of all the boys in there, just three of us immediately started to do what was needed to fix the leaks. Everyone else just tried to keep out of the way. And of the three, none were the normal leaders in the group – not the best sportsmen, nor the oldest, probably not the most self-confident.

Team leadership

So what happened? The situation was one which demanded just getting stuck in and doing what was necessary, regardless of ‘position’. Those who were used to being asked to lead found themselves bypassed – there was no time for asking, even if it had occurred to anyone to do so. Team leadership arose instinctively, and was not authoritarian but part of a team effort. The team assembled within seconds with no discussion, did what it needed to do – and then vanished. What does that story tell you about leadership? First, that leadership is not the same thing as authority that is granted, does not depend on it, and may not be found in the same places. Second, that circumstances may create leaders. And finally, perhaps most importantly but also perhaps confusingly, that to lead well it helps to see yourself as part of the team you are leading. Not all managers are also leaders.

Celebrate Failure!

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]celebrate failure English: neck of bottle of champagne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] What? Don’t you mean success? Well, no – although that is worth celebrating too. I came across the idea that you should celebrate failure recently in “Co-active Coaching”[1], and it makes a lot of sense. People rarely fail at things because they didn’t really try – or at least not at things that matter. First they had to find the courage to attempt something which they knew might to expose them to failure. Then, wanting to avoid failure, they tried hard, probably attempting things they had never done before. Finally they had to admit they had failed - even though in the process they had probably achieved more than they ever thought possible. All of those things are difficult, and worthy of celebration in themselves. But there is more to it than that. Failure is an excellent teacher! When you fail, you have to face up to things you tried which did not work. Often you will want to understand why they did not work, and this may lead to more success next time. There is also a less obvious reason. When we are criticised, blamed and shamed for failing, it usually has the desired effect of making us very keen to avoid failing again. Unfortunately, the consequences of that very understandable urge are not necessarily to make us try harder. We are very likely to learn to avoid taking the risky option in the first place, or to limit the options we consider only to the ones which appear ‘safe’. You can’t stop failure hurting, but instead of adding to the hurt, celebrate failure – the courage, the effort, the learning involved – and at the same time create a culture in which even risky options can be seriously considered.

[1] “Co-Active Coaching” By Henry and Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl and Laura Whitworth

Something for nothing

something for nothing What do you think when someone offers you something for nothing? I suspect most of us say thank you very much, put it in our pocket or bag … and then often forget about it. The problem is, when we give nothing for it, we tend not to value what we received. Many years ago I was involved with promoting amateur music events. Sometimes there were few costs to cover, and the main aim was to attract a reasonable audience, so an easy option was to make admission to a concert free. What happens if you do that? You often get a smaller audience than if you sell tickets at a low price! Why should that be? Well, put yourself in the shoes of the punter. You see a poster advertising a free concert, which looks interesting, so you make a mental note. Come the day of the concert, chances are you have either forgotten about it, or something else more attractive has come along. Since you have invested nothing, you choose to do the more attractive option. Because the organisers have not made you put a value on the event, you may treat it as being worth nothing, unless something else gives it value for you (for example you know one of the performers). There is little difference between something for nothing and nothing for nothing. On the other hand, if you have to buy a ticket, even for a nominal sum, you must give the event a positive value. In addition, if you have to buy the ticket beforehand, you have made an emotional investment. You are more likely to remember about it, and less likely to decide to do something else. Luxury brands do something similar but in reverse. The product itself may not be objectively any better than something cheaper, but the value people put on it is higher, so they are willing to pay more. Value has a significant emotional component, so pricing is always partly a decision about emotion. Never undervalue that!

What’s your lowest price?

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]negotiation English: Terraced house façades, Montague Street See also 1608624 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] I’ll never forget my first serious experience of negotiation. I was selling my first house, a small, terraced house in a cheap part of the city. I loved it, because it was the first house I had owned, and because I had put a lot of work – and a lot of myself – into it. I had decorated every room; I had refitted the kitchen; I had installed central heating to replace electric storage heaters. I was moving to a new area, where I knew housing was going to be a lot more expensive. I had received an offer to buy my house from a junior colleague at work. Obviously that made things slightly awkward to start with. But I was unprepared for what happened when he asked if he could visit again, with a family friend. They duly arrived, and I showed them around. The family friend, an older gentleman, was very appreciative, admiring everything I had done, complimenting me on my workmanship, and so on. And then, at the end of the visit, he pitched me a new price, substantially lower than the offer my colleague had previously made. I was caught off guard. Having refused the new price, I felt I had to respond to his questions, starting with what was the lowest price I would accept? He came back with requests to throw in this and that if they agreed to a higher price, and so on. We eventually agreed a deal – which actually was not such a bad deal from my point of view – but I was left feeling bruised. Looking back, I have to admire the technique. All the praise, all the efforts to make me feel good first, worked a treat, and there was nothing in the negotiation itself that I could criticise. He did a good job for my colleague. So why did I feel bruised? The one thing that was missing in the exchange was creating an honest expectation. I had been led to believe that the friend was there to give a second opinion. It was my colleague’s first house purchase, just as it had been mine, so understandably he wanted someone else to endorse his judgement. I had not expected that the friend was there to negotiate on his behalf – after all, an offer had already been made. Perhaps I was a bit naïve, but I was caught unprepared; the negotiation had high financial and emotional value for me, and I had no experience of handling something like that. I felt that I was backed into a corner, and that personal trust had been breached. So what is the lesson? Don’t just play fair – make sure everyone knows what game you are going to be playing beforehand, especially if personal relationships are involved. Trust is too important, and too hard to rebuild, to risk losing.

The Banana Boat

Banana Boat

Spotted from the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry – a container ship clearly branded ‘Fyffes’. To anyone in the UK (I’m not sure about elsewhere), that means only one thing: bananas. How many bananas would you get on a banana boat? The banana boxes you see in supermarkets must be about 50cm x 35cm x 20cm (1/30 cubic metre) and I’d guess that they might hold about 100 bananas – so that’s something like 3000 bananas per cubic metre. A standard container is about 2.4m x 2.4m x 12m, or 72 cubic metres – so that makes about 200,000 bananas per container. Its hard to tell how many containers there are on the boat, but perhaps 100? So maybe 20,000,000 bananas per ship – one between three for the entire population of the UK. That means we need a ship-load of bananas to arrive in Britain every day to provide the average 2 bananas a week that we each eat. There are several interesting thoughts that follow from that. The first is simply the incredible logistical feat of providing that many ripe bananas, day in, day out, to shops across the land. Demand takes little account of seasons or weather, and bananas are quite easily damaged. Developing processes which can deliver that volume, in good condition and at the price people expect to pay, while having the resilience to cope with the vagaries of nature, is an impressive achievement. There is little to distinguish between one banana and another though – so its only getting those processes optimised that enables you to compete. Another is the power of such rough and ready estimates. Starting from easy observations and guesses that anyone could make, we can get a pretty good estimate of shipping requirements: we might be 2x too big or small, but probably not much worse than that. Frequently there is no need for high precision, at least to start with, but the courage to estimate is not always easily found. A final thought is the power of those little labels, When I was a child, it seemed as though every bunch of bananas had a Fyffes label on it. Fifty years later, the association is still instant. I’m not sure how that creates value for Fyffes (does it?), but the effect is unmistakable!