Singing for your supper: How we learn

I’ve recently started taking singing lessons. A bit late, you might say, since I have been singing in choirs for decades, and I certainly wish I’d started sooner. But it has taught me something important about how we learn. I have been surprised to discover that almost none of my lesson time is about singing in tune or in time! Everything is about technique – how you breath, how you pronounce the words – and a lot of my practice is just saying the words, not singing them at all. It is really hard to train your body to work in a very particular way: months or years of lessons, hours and hours of practice. You can’t just be told the right way to do it, and go away and then do it right - it is more like learning to drive than learning to pass an academic exam. And sometimes you have to be told something over and over again before you are ready to absorb it. I have taken away three wider lessons: • What you have to do to learn a new skill may be quite different from what you expected; • Results may take a long time and demand considerable perseverance; there are no short-cuts; • Hearing something is not enough – you have to hear it at the right time. That has made me think about the problems of change in a different way. As an example, one of my clients has many junior and middle managers with a fairly low level of financial understanding, and with commercial pressure continually increasing this is holding them back. How should we fix this? The traditional approach would probably be to send them on a short course to learn the “facts” about finance – understanding a P&L, a balance sheet, etc. But perhaps it is not the facts but the practice they are short of, or they are not ready to hear the message? I have done enough short courses myself to know that few of the facts stay in the mind for long anyway. The singing lessons experience suggests to me that they are probably only part of the solution. Time to think about a new approach, based on how we learn!

It’s not over until the thin lady signs… Making the wrong assumptions

A couple of weeks ago, I had an evening out at the opera. I’d never encountered this on previous visits, but throughout the performance, there was a lady at the side of the stage translating the sung words into sign language. At the time I thought it rather odd – why would deaf people come to the opera at all? In any case, the words were displayed in English text over the top of the stage. Was this accessibility gone mad? That prompted me to do a little research, and to realise that there are many reasons why there might be deaf people in the audience: from the obvious-if-you-think-about-it possibility that they might be with partners who are not deaf, to the much more important facts that most deaf people have some hearing and may well enjoy music (and even if they have no hearing, may find musical enjoyment in feeling the vibrations), and the more profound realisation that for some deaf people the English spoken and written around them may be ‘foreign’ compared to sign language.


All too often, we make assumptions about how other people see things. In this case, the conflict between my assumptions and the evidence led me to investigate, and find out that my assumptions were wrong, but much of the time our assumptions go unchallenged, and so un-investigated. In change projects, this is a particular danger. People who are feeling threatened or alienated by a change may be unwilling to point out that wrong assumptions are being made, even if they are not assuming that “management must have thought of that – it’s not for me to say”. Change managers must try to unearth conflicts like this by building relationships widely, and giving people at all levels encouragement to bring their concerns into the open. Change projects often fail, at least to some degree. I wonder how often that is because the manager did not realise, or bother to find out why, the assumptions were in conflict with the evidence. [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]

Engage with emotion – lead with passion

The unexpected death this week of Bob Crow, leader of the RMT Union (which represents many London Underground train drivers amongst others) has prompted quite a bit of media comment over the last few days. Tributes from industrial and political leaders have expressed sincere sadness, despite what his militant public persona might have led you to expect. I never met Bob Crow, but it seems to me that he grasped more clearly than many that what most people want in their leaders is passion and an appeal to their emotions. At a time of generally falling Union membership, he doubled RMT membership, and then doubled it again, over a decade. I doubt that he could have done that by making a careful rational case. Stack that up against managers who – as public servants, charged with careful management of public money – are obliged to make their arguments rationally. Can you imagine what would have happened if politicians had incited Londoners to picket RMT headquarters when the tube went on strike? It is hardly surprising that he made an impact. Recalling other powerful Union figures of the past – Arthur Scargill, say - isn’t that instinctive understanding of emotional leadership and the power of passion something they had in common? And perhaps the reason we now have a much less unionised and strike-prone world than we did is in part because union leaders have become less demonstrably passionate. We need leaders who are passionate about their cause – whether in politics, in industry, or in unions – because passion is what galvanises the led. Whichever side of the argument you are on, we need more leaders who do that, as Bob Crow did. [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]

What did he say the objective was?

Misunderstandings A recent client experience came to mind when I read the following blog post: Seth says “you will be misunderstood”, and broadly speaking I agree with him: we all interpret what we hear in the context of our own experiences, however careful the speaker, and those experiences are all different. But I think is important to remember that there are degrees of misunderstanding; not all misunderstandings are equal. My client had started a change project which was running into difficulty. As I started to talk to his staff, it became clear that they all had slightly different understandings of the objectives of the project. Not only did that mean that there was confusion about where they were trying to get to as a whole, but it also meant that the various workstreams were unlikely to join up. You won’t be surprised to hear that there was not much formal documentation for the project. I’m sure my client felt he had explained what he wanted very clearly – and if he had been on the receiving end, I am certain that he would have understood himself perfectly. But his audience was not him, and he had not taken the additional step of asking his audience to play back to him to check their understanding. One of the most important tasks for any project manager is to make sure that project objectives are defined clearly, and that everyone understands them. A key skill for project managers is therefore to be able to put things into simple, unambiguous language that fits the background and culture of everyone in the team. They must be good translators: there may still be some misunderstandings, but if they can’t reduce them to a very low minimum by adapting their language (and their listening) to their different audiences, they will not be effective. Just look what happened at Babel!

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.