If you never try it…

intelligent ears A few days ago I went to a concert. Not a typical one though. I was attracted by the lines “…even if you know nothing at all about…”, and “We know all people will bring intelligent ears with them.” An opportunity to experience something new. The music was by Karlheinz Stockhausen, a pioneer of electronic music in the 1950s who had a major influence on the world of pop as well as on ‘serious’ music (he is one of the faces on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album). It was an extraordinary evening. Some people might not regard what we heard as music at all, but just a jumble of noises. Beforehand, I might have been one of them. What astonished me was that the whole experience was completely enthralling. The sound as you might hear it from loudspeakers at home was only one element. The virtuosic skill of the performers creating this incredibly complex sound was humbling to watch. The continually-changing spatial arrangement of the sound, and the atmosphere created by being with all those other ‘intelligent ears’ added other dimensions. Somehow, the jumble started to make sense. It was an evening to remember for a long time.

Its worth the risk

If you have never tried something, you can’t know what you are missing. Maybe it won’t work for you. But just as likely you will find new perspectives and insights that you could not have imagined otherwise. It is worth the risk.

Fancy a walk?

  walking-group innovation I’ve just started trying to organise a local walking group for alumni from my university. The initial process was simple: I wrote an email asking for interest, the alumni office sent it out to people on their database with postcodes in the local area, and I collected the responses. The outcome has been pleasantly surprising. The response rate was over 10%, which under almost any circumstances I would think was a fantastic return for a single ‘cold call’ message out of the blue. But almost as surprising was the proportion of responses which included words along the lines of ‘what a good idea’ with at least the implication of ‘why has no-one suggested this before?’. It seemed as if all that latent demand was just sitting there waiting to be tapped.


That set me thinking about how innovation happens. This was not a complicated idea; anyone could have tried it. But no one else did. So what does innovation need? I think there are usually two ingredients. The first is some kind of investment. Often that is financial, but (as in this case) it may just be time and emotional energy. Investment means that you have to put something in, but that success is uncertain and although you may be rewarded well, you may also get nothing back. So the innovator must be willing to take that risk. The second is some relevant knowledge. I had done something similar before, so I knew an easy way to reach my target audience. That knowledge reduced both my investment of time and the risk of failure I saw. I might have been willing to try anyway, but this made it more likely that I would. Certainly I was more likely to try than people without that knowledge. All of us prioritise what we will spend our time on, largely based on our perception of the risk-reward balances of our options. Making innovation happen is usually not about brilliant ideas; it is far more about simply taking the risk to put a simple idea into practice. There is little you can do to change someone’s appetite for risk. If you want to encourage innovation, then, try to find ways to reduce the risk that they see.

Lovely day at The Shard!

best practiceI went to a fascinating talk by Adam Hoyle, Managing Director, Tradax Group Ltd, on Corporate Best Practice in Public Sector Bidding. I thought there were a number of lessons that apply more generally to running all kinds of projects that would be worth sharing.

Seven best practice tips

  • Don’t start projects unless they align with your overall strategy
Obvious, but I’ve often seen it ignored in the heat of the moment, too!
  • Make sure you have thought through exactly what decision-making authority each person involved should have, and that this has been clearly communicated and understood
In my experience the latter are frequently neglected, even if the former is not. Too many people think governance is boring, so don’t bother. It should provide the rock that success is built on
  • Give everyone involved a clear written briefing pack at the start, providing them with all the basic information about the project that they will require
Saves a lot of repetition, and makes sure everyone has a single reference point they can go back to, so things are more likely to join up later. It saves you time in the long run
  • Standardise what you can – but everything that is standardised needs an owner who takes their ownership seriously
We all know how fast most of the stuff on our intranets goes out of date, but still sits there. The corollary may also be true: what you can’t find an owner for, you probably won’t be able to standardise effectively
  • Think hard about what information would really make a difference to your performance if you had it, and work creatively (legally of course) to get it – for example using FoI requests
I think the key is identifying what information would lead to specific and worthwhile improvement actions if you had it. Too often, people ask for information without having thought about what they would do with it. When they get the answer, they realise it is interesting, but not actionable
  • Use the information you have intelligently – there is probably much more that you can learn than is immediately obvious, if you put it all together
E.g. draw graphs of trends across projects, and work out what they are telling you. And don’t ignore what you see because you don’t like the message, as people often do!
  • Transitions between teams – for example on winning a bid, or starting to operate an asset – are high-risk boundaries, which need careful planning to make sure they go smoothly
I recommend running readiness reviews for these. It is not the review that counts – by then it may be too late – but the knowledge that that discipline will happen Do go and listen to Adam talk and hear his views on best practice first-hand, if you get the chance! He’s an inspiring speaker.

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.  

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.

To Plan B or not to Plan B? That is the question.

how do we deal with risk The other night I was meeting a friend for dinner in town. You know how sometimes when you get down to the tube platform it feels wrong? It felt wrong. Too many people, milling about with resigned looks, not purposefully waiting. Then the public announcement: “the Victoria line is suspended from Victoria to Walthamstow Central. There is a shuttle service operating between Brixton and Victoria.” No train. No boards telling you when the next train is coming either. I have a choice: I can take the chance of waiting, hoping that if a train does come soon I might still be on time – but it might be ages; or I can go out and catch a bus – I will definitely be a bit late, but I know it will definitely come?

How do we deal with risk?

It’s a nice example of how we human beings deal with risk. I don’t know about you, but my thought process goes something like this. First I will take the higher risk option – perhaps partly because it is where I am.  As I wait, and nothing happens, I weigh up how late I am going to be if I catch the bus. At some point (if I am still waiting) I decide to cut my losses – either way I’m going to be late, so I opt for the more certain course and catch the bus.  This time, I waited 10 minutes before changing to Plan B, and was 20 minutes late. If I had changed immediately I would only have been 10 minutes late. It’s not very rational – the sensible thing surely is to take the low risk option as early as possible, minimising the lateness, rather than just hoping that Plan A will avoid us being late at all, and then finishing up being later than we needed to be. But it seems to be human nature to take the optimistic view like this. Usually when we have to deal with risk there is some kind of pain threshold we have to exceed before we are willing to consider an alternative course, even though the sensible point to do so may have been much earlier. I don’t know how much unnecessary pain we suffer as a result, but I suspect it is significant! Do you need help identifying the change options you have to deal with risk? Please get in touch.

A mug’s game?

informing board members I’m on my way to a Board meeting. My job as a Board member is to turn up about once a month for a meeting lasting normally no more than a couple of hours to take the most important decisions the company needs – decisions which are often about complex areas, fraught with operational, commercial, legal and possibly political implications, and often with ambitious managers or other vested interests arguing strongly (but not necessarily objectively) for their preferred outcome. Few of the decisions are black and white, but most carry significant risk for the organisation. Good outcomes rely on informing Board members effectively. This is a well-managed organisation, so I have received the papers for the meeting  a week in advance, but I have had no chance to seek clarification of anything which is unclear, or to ask for further information. In many organisations, the papers may arrive late, or they may have been poorly written so that the story they tell is incomplete or hard to understand (despite often being very detailed), or both. The Board meeting, with a packed agenda and a timetable to keep to, is my only chance to fill the gaps. I have years of experience to draw on, but experience can only take me so far. Will I miss an assumption that ought to be challenged, or a risk arising from something I am not familiar with? If that happens, we may make a poor decision, and I will share the responsibility. In some cases – for instance a safety issue - that might have serious consequences for other people. It’s not a happy thought.

Informing Board members

In order for a Board (or any other body) to make good decisions, it has to be in possession of appropriate information. These are some of the rules I have followed when I have set up arrangements to promote effective governance.
Good papers
Good papers tell the story completely and logically, but concisely. They do not assume that the reader knows the background. They build the picture without jumping around, and make clear and well-argued recommendations. They do not confuse with unnecessary detail, but nor do they overlook important aspects. As Einstein said, “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Provide rules on length, apply (pragmatic) quality control to the papers received, and refuse to include papers if they do not meet minimum requirements (obviously it helps to be able to give advice on how to make them acceptable). You must of course choose a reviewer whose judgements will be respected. This may well result in some painful discussions, but people only learn the hard way.
Timely distribution
If members do not have time to read the papers properly, it does not matter how good they are. If I am a busy Board member, I may need to reserve time in my diary for meeting preparation, and this is a problem if I cannot rely on papers arriving on time. Set submission deadlines which allow for timely and predictable distribution, and enforce them. Again, be prepared for some painful discussions until people learn.
Informal channels
Concise papers and busy Board meetings are never going to allow for deep understanding of context. To overcome this, I have organised informal sessions immediately preceding Board meetings, over a sandwich lunch if the timing requires. Allocate a couple of hours for just two or three topics; bring in the subject experts, but spend most of the time on discussion. Not all Board members will be able to attend every session, but in my experience not only have they found them hugely valuable in building their wider knowledge of the business, but the opportunity to meet more junior staff has been appreciated all round. There are many other ways that informal channels could be set up. Different things will work in different organisations. Key to all of them is building trust: informing Board members properly means allowing them to see things “warts and all”, and trusting a wider group of staff to talk to them.
To do all of these things effectively, you need to have someone (or in larger organisations a small secretariat team) whose primary objective is to deliver them. This is not glamorous stuff, however important, and it easily gets put to the bottom of the pile without clear leadership. Finally, remember that nothing will happen unless the importance of this is understood at the very top.  If the CEO does not set an example by sticking to time and quality rules, no one else will.


wrong assumptions Years ago, I was managing the sale of a business division. The business was based on carrying out a highly-specialised technical test on clients’ products, and each time a test was carried out, it made a loud bang. This would have been of no concern if it had not been that they were carried out in a large workshop also used for other activities. However, checks had been made and the noise levels were within legal safety limits. Just before signing the deal, we happened to mention to the purchaser that we had some tests scheduled for the next day, and he said he’d like to send someone round to check the sound levels. It was a beautiful summer’s day – until their measurements showed that the bangs were over the limit. What a toe-curling moment! Clearly, we had made the wrong assumptions. In the end it was not as bad as it seemed: a sound-attenuating box solved the problem without making access too difficult, at quite modest cost and with only a few weeks’ delay. But the proving tests provided another surprise – the noise levels were legal again without the box. The reason – we now realised – was that the humidity of the air could affect its sound-attenuating properties.

Avoiding wrong assumptions

Conclusion 1 – Make sure you know what factors can affect your assumptions. Wrong assumptions may lead to disaster. Conclusion 2 – Don’t rely on conclusion 1! If something is critical, don’t rely on a modest safety margin – do what you can to increase it early, in case there is something you have not anticipated.

Paddington Sheep

Beating the crowd Have you ever noticed how the crowds waiting for commuter trains at Paddington (or doubtless most other big terminus stations) nearly all stay on the concourse until the platform is announced, even though each train usually runs from the same platform every day (so the regular commuters who are the majority all know which it is likely to be)? Consequence – a great crush as everyone rushes at the ticket barriers at once.

Beating the crowd

There are always a small number of people who don’t wait. They go calmly through the barrier with no queues, and get seats exactly where they want, beating the crowd instead of risking no seat at all. Maybe once in a blue moon the platform is different and they have to move – but it’s rare. It’s a great illustration of how conformist people (or at least we Brits) tend to be.  I would guess less than 5% make the rational risk-reward trade-off and act accordingly, beating the crowd. 95% of us prefer to be part of the herd – but I wonder whether it is the people you would expect? Now there’s an interesting way to separate the sheep from the goats! Given those proportions, it is hardly surprising that very few people embrace change before they have to – even if they would stand to benefit from being early adopters. On the other hand, as change managers we have no need to wait until everything is ready before making announcements, unlike station staff. Early communication leads to more organised loading!