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!

Follow my leader

 change leadership What is leadership about? The very word implies movement. Leadership involves helping other people to find the way from A to B, so all leadership is change leadership of some kind. If we are sticking to A, the people may need managing, but there is not much leading involved. You don’t need a leader if you are not going anywhere. How many times have you heard people say “if its not broken, why fix it?” Probably you have said it yourself at times. Or “I don’t want to upset the apple cart”? No-one likes change – everyone is more comfortable with the status quo. The trouble is, stability is an illusion, at least in the longer term. Everything grows - or it declines. The organisation that does not change positively is doomed eventually to change negatively. Change is the whole point of leadership. The joke says “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but it has to want to change!” The job of the leader is to have the vision of where to go to, and then to get people to the point where they want to, or at least accept the need for, change.

What a scorcher

joining things up There is a rather impressive new office building going up in the City of London at the moment. Colloquially referred to as the Walkie Talkie building (London likes its building nicknames), instead of the usual flat walls, its walls are gently curved, giving it a very sculptural quality. And like many modern office blocks, it is covered with floor to ceiling glass. It will look amazing when it is completed. However, people living, working, or even just passing nearby are feeling amazed for all the wrong reasons. It seems that the architects didn't join things up - they forgot to take account of – or underestimated – the effects of the laws of optics. Think of a reflecting telescope. It works because the concave mirror in the telescope focuses the light from the stars that falls on it. What have the architects put on the front of the Walkie Talkie building? In effect, a gigantic concave mirror. And like all such mirrors it focuses the light – in this case particularly the sunlight - falling on it. On a hot summers’ day, the temperature in a nearby street has risen enough to blister paint and melt plastic. Now it’s called the Walkie Scorchie.

Joining things up

It’s a great idea to reflect sunlight so that your offices don’t overheat, but it is not OK to give someone else your sunlight problem instead. Frequently an internal focus on solving our own problems can blind us to the difficulty that our solution may export to someone else. However expert each of us is in the areas we know about, we may blunder into basic problems outside those areas. In this interconnected world, it is wise to think carefully about any possible external effects; otherwise an embarrassing oversight can quickly become a PR disaster. Joining things up so that such things do not happen is far from easy, and needs a commitment to cross-silo working that few organisations seem to recognise. Busy managers may not have time – and frequently have no incentive – to consider wider impacts. Making it happen requires explicitly recognising the need and creating processes in response.  

Which end of natural selection are you on? Evolution and strategic change

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]evolution Tyrannosaurus rex, Palais de la Découverte, Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] Evolution is the natural process by which all forms of life adapt to changes in their environment. It is a very slow process, in which many small changes gradually accumulate. It is unplanned and undirected: who knows how the environment may change in the future, and so what adaptations would put us ahead of the game? Successful changes are not necessarily the best possible choices, merely the best of those that were tested. Different individuals start from different places, and so the adaptations which seem to work will vary.  Consequently, over time, divergence will occur until different species result, even though each species can be traced back to a common ancestor. But evolution is brutal too: not all species will make it. Some find they have gone down an evolutionary dead end, and some that change is simply too fast for them to adapt to. Sometimes organisational change can be like this. I once worked for a public-sector organisation which was privatised, so that it had to change from being ‘mission-led’ to being profit-led. Management set out a vision for what it wanted the organisation to become – essentially a similar, unitary, organisation but in the private sector – but was unable to make the radical changes necessary to deliver it fast enough. Evolution carried on regardless as the primary need to survive forced short-term decisions which deviated from the vision. Without a unifying mission as a common guide, different parts of the organisation evolved in different ways to adapt to their own local environments. Fragmentation followed, with a variety of different destinies for the parts, and a few divisions falling by the wayside. Despite starting down their preferred route of unitary privatisation, the eventual destination was exactly what the original managers had been determined to avoid. What is the lesson? Ideally of course it should be possible to set out a strategic objective, and then to deliver the changes needed to get there. But if the change required is too great, or the barriers mean change is brought about too slowly, the short-term decisions of evolution may shape the future without regard to management intentions. That does not necessarily make the outcome worse in the greater scheme of things: after all, evolution is about survival of the fittest. But natural selection is an overwhelming force, and if short-term decisions are threatening to de-rail management’s strategic plan, it may be wise to take another look at the plan, and to try to work with evolution rather than against it.

Disasters and how you can (try to) avoid them

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]disasters View of Chernobyl taken from roof of building in Pripyat Ukraine. Photo Taken by Jason Minshull, then digitally zoomed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] Have you noticed how often it happens that when things go wrong, they don’t just go wrong, they go horribly wrong? From the truly horrendous disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima to the merely painful like a company going bust, once things have started to go bad, the interventions people make often exacerbate the situation. Why is that? When things start to go wrong, there can be a number of immediate reactions, depending on the circumstances. One is to hide your head in the sands, and pretend that there is nothing wrong. That is almost guaranteed to make things worse! More common is the fire hose approach:  do something drastic with the intention of stopping the immediate threat, which may deal with the underlying causes (although it may also exacerbate them), but certainly soaks everything, whatever the consequences. Following the analogy, the fire hose is good at putting out some sorts of fires, but inadvisable on oil or electrical fires! In between is the timid approach – not wanting to do any more damage than can be avoided, the attempted cure finishes up being too little and too late. How difficult it is to get the balance right!

Fast disasters …

It is understandable that in a crisis people react by tackling the obvious problems. If your house is on fire, stopping the flames obviously seems more important than avoiding ruining the furniture.  When the situation is relatively simple, that approach works. The problem comes when the situation is more complex. In a crisis, you act instinctively, and you do not usually have time to think through the consequences of your actions. Almost by definition, complexity will bring unforeseen consequences. How many organisations have no more complexity than they need? What to do about this? There are two possible approaches. You can minimise the risk of unforeseen consequences in a crisis by keeping the organisation as simple as possible. Or you can practice crisis management through exercises and so attempt to learn what adverse consequences might occur and how to avoid them. Or you can do both, of course. Clearly though, both of these have a cost which needs to be incurred when there is no crisis in sight.

… and slow disasters

Slow disasters pose different and much more difficult problems. The fire-hose approach is much less likely; head-in-the-sands and timidity more so. It all starts with ability to acknowledge the problem in the first place. The organisation’s leaders may not believe that what they are seeing are signs of a problem. Even if they do think there is a problem, they may not want to admit this. They or people they are connected to may have vested interests; they may be unwilling to admit failure, or believe that admitting problems will damage confidence and make them worse; they may believe that other issues are more urgent. Perhaps the most common situation is that leaders recognise the problem, but simply underestimate what is needed to fix it. Most managers are optimists at heart, and in deciding what – often painful - actions are required, optimism bias will tend to creep in to minimise the pain. These can be very difficult decisions:  for example, no manager wants to make any more staff redundant than they absolutely have to. However, if the ‘cure’ is insufficient, the problem remains, and will have to be treated again – with the ‘patient’ now in a weaker condition than previously. Underestimating can be fatal: death by a thousand cuts is a phrase I have heard repeated too often, and the consequences for staff can be worse than being bold at the outset. In summary then, perhaps the message in both cases is the same: optimism rarely provides salvation; taking what feels like unnecessary pain early may do.

Light the blue touch-paper, and stand well back! 5 tips for avoiding e-mail fireworks

e-mail Fireworks How often have you found yourself having a conversation, and it gradually dawning on you that the person you are talking to thinks the conversation is about something quite different to what you thought? It happens to us all from time to time, and normally it causes at worst mild embarrassment as one of you says, ‘hang on a minute, I thought we were talking about  x’ and the other looks bemused. Sometimes though, miscommunication can cause real problems.

E-mail Fireworks

Perhaps the most common place for miscommunication to cause problems in the working world is in e-mails. Maybe the relationship is a bit sticky already, or perhaps the subject is emotive. You write an e-mail, for example telling someone what you are going to do. Writing the message down gives you a chance to choose the words carefully so that they can’t be misinterpreted, right? Wrong! Within a few microseconds of pressing the ”send” button, you notice that your computer has started to smoke from the heat in the reply that has just clanged into your inbox. You read it – how could they have misunderstood your intentions so wildly? They must be spoiling for a fight! Your emotion finds its way into your reply, and the exchange just escalates. E-mail fireworks are never productive. Why are e-mails so fraught? Mainly, they are too easy. We dash them off with little thought. For straightforward factual messages that is not a problem. The trouble comes when the exchange has some (often unexpected) emotional content. Although they seem like a way of keeping the emotion out and so appear to be an easy option, humans are emotional creatures: we don’t often do purely rational. Be especially careful when you are worried about the reaction, and it feels safer to keep your distance. By omitting the emotional context of the message, which we detect mostly from body language and tone of voice, we take away the very cues which would help the recipient to know whether we meant to be provocative or were just not choosing our words very well. Poorly-chosen words in the context of a friendly tone and an open expression will usually only prompt clarification, but without these, people usually assume the worst. Here are five tips for minimising the risk of e-mail fireworks, and getting things back on track if necessary:
  • If you think the message might have some emotional content, don’t rely on e-mail if you can possibly avoid it. Start the exchange face-to-face, or at least with a phone call, so that there is an emotional context. Only once the tone has been set should you follow it up with an email.
  • If you didn’t think the message was emotional, but the response appears to be – or even just indicates misunderstanding - never send an email reply. Pick up the phone straight away to clarify, or go and see them if you can.
  • If you have to send an email which you know may be emotive, save a draft overnight before sending it, and re-read it in the morning. You have a better chance then of seeing how someone else might mis-interpret your words, and stopping it before it is too late. I rarely find I change nothing the next day!
  • For really sensitive messages which you have to put in writing, ask someone else to check your words before you send them.
  • If an exchange has gone emotional, apologise face to face – even if you don’t think you have anything to apologise for.

Have you looked in the mirror recently?

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]Information Inertia Wing mirror VW Fox (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] Last week I had to drive my daughter to France to start a year of study at a French University. As you can imagine, the (small) car was packed to the roof with all the things she needed, or at least believed she needed, and which could not possibly get there any other way. Result – the rear view mirror only gave me a view of some pillows, which was not a lot of help. However, I very quickly adjusted to relying entirely on the wing mirrors, and felt reasonably safe even though I was driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. The strange thing was that on the return journey, having unloaded in Nantes, I continued in the same way. It was only chance that I glanced in the direction of the main mirror, and realised that it was (of course) no longer obstructed. Information inertia!

Information inertia

Businesses need to rely more on looking forwards than looking back (as do drivers!) but the lesson for me was how easy it is to continue to rely on the kind of information which we have become used to, even when better information becomes available – and even when you really should know it is there. Of course it is comforting to have the same monthly report format that you have always had. You know exactly what information will be there, and where to find it. There is always a cost-benefit question around extra information, and it certainly needs to earn its keep. Nonetheless, it is a good idea to ask yourselves regularly whether there is any new information which should be added.