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Make up your mind!

tough decisions I was once asked in an interview about tough decisions I’ve made, and how I made them. I understand why it might be thought important in the selection process: it seems like a good question. Doesn’t it tell you something about the individual’s ability to cope in difficult situations? However, on reflection I’m less convinced! Thinking back over a number of my roles, I realised (to my surprise) that most of the important decisions I have taken have not seemed tough at all. By ‘tough’ I mean difficult to make; they may still have been hard to implement. Conversely, tough decisions (on that definition) have often not been particularly important.

What makes tough decisions?

So what makes a decision tough? Often it is when there are two potentially conflicting drivers for the decision which can’t be measured against each other. Most commonly, it is when my rational, analytical side is pulling me one way – and my emotional, intuitive side is pulling another. Weighing up the pros and cons of different choices is relatively easy when it can be an analytical exercise, but that depends on comparing apples with apples. When two choices are evenly balanced on that basis, your choice will make little difference, so there is no point agonising about it. The problem comes when the rational comparison gives one answer, but intuitively you feel it is wrong. Comparing a rational conclusion with an emotional one is like comparing apples and roses – there is simply no basis for the comparison. When they are in conflict, you must decide (without recourse to analysis or feeling!) whether to back the rational conclusion or the intuitive one. A simple example is selecting candidates for roles. Sometimes a candidate appears to tick all the boxes convincingly, but intuition gives a different answer. On the rare occasions when I have over-ridden my intuition, it has usually turned out to be a mistake. Based on experience, then, I know that I should normally go with intuition, however hard that feels. We are all different though. Perhaps everyone has to find out from their mistakes how to make their own tough decisions. What we should not do is confuse how hard it is to make a decision with how important it is.

A Question of Identity

It was only in the latter stages of the referendum campaign that the penny dropped for me. I realised that the reason that the campaign was so much about emotion and so little about facts and likely consequences was that, whatever its ostensible purpose, the referendum had come to be about who we are. My identity is what I believe it to be, and what those I identify with believe it to be. The outcome of a referendum does not, cannot, change that, even if it can lead to a change of status. It would obviously be nonsense if, when you asked someone whether they would be best off staying married or getting divorced, they stated their gender as the answer. Politicians have allowed a question about relationship to be given an answer about identity. Apples and oranges. In so doing they have shot themselves – and at the same time the whole country – in the foot.

Identity and change

There is a profound lesson about change there. Identity is perhaps the ‘stickiest’ phenomenon in culture, because belonging is so fundamental to our sense of security. A change project is often perceived as changing in some way the identity of that to which we belong. However, peoples’ sense of identity changes much more slowly than the strategy. If we do not take steps to bridge the identity gap while people catch up, it is the relationship which is in for trouble. Culture Identity graph 2 How do you do that? It is job of the vision you present to make people feel that they want to belong to the new future, and so to accept the discomfort of modifying their sense of identity. If people don’t buy into that vision, your chances of making the change successfully are low. Whether or not it was deliverable, the ‘Leave’ campaign presented a simple vision of the future based on an identity which was clearly appealing to those disposed to believe it was. If ‘Remain’ presented a vision at all, it certainly did not make much attempt to sell an identity. It is reasonable to ask people about their identity, but we have representative democracy because you will still get the identity answer even if you ask them a relationship question. If you want to bring about a successful change, start by making sure you have a believable vision which protects peoples’ identity and sense of belonging. Then campaign for that, even if it is not directly what the change is about.

What are you worth?

value Many years ago I used to make pottery as a hobby. After a few years I got to be good enough that friends sometimes asked me to make pots for them. Of course, that is when things start to get a bit difficult – what to charge them? I could have said “I’m a hobby potter – if I cover my costs, that will be fine.” But then, if a friend asked me to make something (in principle at least) it was instead of buying from someone who was trying (and mostly struggling) to make a living out of potting. For someone like me to undercut them seemed wrong. I always charged about what I thought they would have had to pay a ‘real’ potter for something similar. That way I felt that they were choosing my work just because they liked what I made. When I explained, everyone thought that was fair. Over the years, I have learnt just how important it is to value yourself appropriately. I once took a job at a rather lower salary than I had been used to, rather than continue the uncertainty of searching until I found a better one. I discovered that because I had accepted that valuation of myself, understandably everyone else did too. The job didn’t challenge me, so I got bored, but it seemed to be impossible to persuade anyone within the organisation that I could be adding more value if only they would ask me to work on some more difficult problems – of which there were plenty. The job I was doing needed to be done. Before long, I left to go to a job at a more appropriate level. This can be a difficult balance for an interim manager. Price is only an imperfect proxy for the value of the job, but what a customer expects to pay is usually a good indication of how they see it. We all need to pay the bills, but accepting a disparity in price perceptions is not usually a good basis for a satisfying relationship in any kind of transaction.

Squeeze the balloon…

creativity Planet K2 shared this great TED talk about how limitations can help creativity. But how is that relevant to management? As managers, we always have to work within many limitations: it is the nature of the world we work in. Contracts of all kinds; laws and regulations; stakeholder wishes; all constrain the freedom we have to act. If we see our job as managers being to make sure that we comply with all these requirements – some of which may well be conflicting, making that task ultimately impossible – there is a good chance we will start a downwards spiral of attempting ever-tighter control while only making things worse, as artist Phil Hansen found. We become more and more stressed, and less and less able to meet all those requirements. How much better to recognise that while the limitations rule out some options, those very limitations can help us to focus our imaginations on the many other options which we may not have considered, but which remain available (and which, as Hansen found, can still present an overwhelming range of possibilities). When you squeeze the balloon, it pops out somewhere else. That requires us to have the courage to be creative, to try new approaches which have some risk of failure – but that makes success all the more satisfying and rewarding, as well as helping to free us to continue down the route of creativity. Hansen found that what seemed to be the end of his dream of a creative life was in fact the door to whole new worlds of creativity. Rather than try too hard to work within our constraints, let’s use them to help us find the ways to better solutions, as he did.

Which matters most, the big picture or the detail?

strategy Is your high-level strategy adequately joined up with the realisation of the vision on the ground? The people who are interested in the strategy are often not very interested in managing the details, and perhaps are frustrated by the questions they are asked by implementers. The people who are delegated the task of dealing with the detail frequently do not have the strategic ability, or lack the information, to understand fully the context for what they have been asked to do. The consequence is a gap between intent and delivery which is often filled with misunderstandings, confusion, misalignment and ultimately frustration.

A joined-up strategy

Overcoming this requires a clear shared understanding of the big picture. It is not just about communications, although that is important. As they say, the devil is in the detail, so it requires working together to think through the implications of strategy – the roles cannot be separated. Both the big picture and the detail matter, but how you join them up is critical: the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, but only if it really is a whole.

Are you Red or Blue?

Yesterday I spent the morning at WBMS, in a fascinating workshop run by Quirk Solutions exploring the value of ‘Wargaming’ as a way of testing the resilience of a strategy and related plans before putting them into effect.

Wargaming, as you might imagine, is based on the process developed by the military to evaluate their plans, but that is where any direct connection to anything military ends. If you called the process something else, nothing about it would tell you its origins. And in practice, it is really a somewhat more formalised and disciplined extension of testing approaches which you may well already use to some extent. Where Chis Paton and his team at Quirk really add value is in their in-depth experience of what works, and highly-polished skills for facilitating the process to make it maximally effective. I took away a number of key ideas for running a good process which I thought it would be worth sharing.


The process is based around two teams: the Blue (plan-owning) Team and the Red (plan-challenging) Team. Although that sounds similar to the common approach of ‘Red Team Review’ for proposal improvement, in this process it is made more effective by asking each Red Team player to represent the views of a major interested party or parties. This makes for a much more engaged and lively process, better bringing out emotive issues. It can also bring out the important potential conflicts between different interests which may otherwise be ‘averaged out’. At least some of the Red Team can be externals – where there are no commercial issues, they could even be the relevant interest groups themselves! – which is clearly likely to help avoid blind spots. Even in a brief exercise, it was clear that the role-playing approach could bring much greater richness to the output. The process is also iterative: the Blue Team present their outline plan (best not to develop too much detail early, as it is likely to change!); the Red Team make challenges back from their ‘interest’ perspectives; the Blue Team re-work the proposal to address as many of the issues as possible; further challenge, and so on. Clearly in a relatively brief review meeting, there will be very limited time for further analysis or data gathering between iterations, so the objective is not a finished plan, but the best possible framework to take away and work up, together with lists of actions and owners. That leads me to my final point: While a Red Team Review would normally be looking at a more-or-less finished proposal, the process we tested will add most value early in the process of development. No-one likes to make significant changes to a plan that they have put a lot of effort into, however important, and that may well lead to the smallest adaptation possible, rather than the best. Thanks WBMS and Quirk for organising a stimulating event!

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.

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.

If it isn’t broken, why fix it?

innovation Let's face it, if innovation isn’t change, what is? So in thinking about why change is difficult, and how to overcome the challenges, thinking about how to make innovation successful may help. A frequent characteristic of innovations is that the needs they address, or could address, are not recognised. History is littered with examples, from Marshal Foch’s view that aeroplanes were of no military value to Thomas Watson’s famous assessment that there might be a global market for at most 5 computers. Most people have heard the saying “build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”. Innovations still fail, though, because the world didn’t know it needed a better mousetrap, and so it wasn’t listening. Before you can even start to persuade people to adopt your innovation, you may have to help them to recognise that they have a problem it can address. Change initiatives are no different. I was recently helping an organisation plan a major change. I believed that the change would have consequences for other aspects of the operations, and that these consequences needed to be planned for too. Although I made several attempts to explain this to the CEO, I failed to convince her. Needless to say no such planning was done, and so I shall not be surprised if there are later problems requiring emergency solutions. A pity, but you can’t win ‘em all! How do change initiatives start? One or a few people have an idea about how to do things differently. Sometimes there may be a widely-recognised problem, but even then it may be a big step to create the link to the proposed solution. Often most people – even management – have not yet recognised that there is a problem, and before they will consider any change, they need to be persuaded that the need is real. Change initiators are often the people who are able to see what will trip up the organisation before others can, but that means that they also have the challenge of helping others to see what they see. Think of the lookout on a boat – their vantage point means they can see rocks ahead before anyone else, but before they can get the boat to change course they have to be believed. The power of the human mind to cling on to existing beliefs, for example that the rocks are miles away, is very strong. So change management starts with taking the time to educate people about the problem that needs to be addressed. Until they believe that there is a problem – that there are rocks ahead – trying to persuade them to accept the change required to address it is likely to be wasted breath. If you need help seeing the rocks, or persuading people they are real, do get in touch.