Keep it simple stupid – but don’t be simply stupid

Albert Einstein allegedly said:

“Everything should be as simple as possible but no simpler”

The constant drive for efficiency and effectiveness has encouraged the use of standardised solutions in situations where similar issues or events need to be handled but we need to take care that we don’t over simplify our approach or over-standardise our solutions. Perhaps we need to take note of this observation:

“Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.”

Harry Day – Royal Flying Corps First World War fighter ace.

A short story to illustrate the riskPay and Displays.

An early morning visit to a local town-centre supermarket led me to park in their underground car park. The store offers short-term parking at competitive rates and the fee is refunded to shoppers who make modest purchases. The system is managed using a pay and display system which dispenses a ticket and a voucher for the refund.

Approaching the nearest machine, I noted that it was out of order as was the next nearest. Looking round the car park, I spotted two security men at one of the more remote machines and decided to approach them. I asked whether that machine was out of order too. Their response took me by surprise. “They are all out of order at this time of the morning, until we have replaced the batteries – they are solar powered!”

This system has been in place in both the above ground and basement car parks for at least 10 years.

Some observations:

  1. The design and selection of the pay and display machines was probably appropriate to the most of the locations in which they were required – but clearly not all. The choice of a standardised solution is also understandable but perhaps it would have made sense to have considered the situations where the standard design would not be appropriate.
  2. There are mains powered items in the basement, lighting, signage but did anyone do an analysis to compare the cost of running cables to the machines with the cost of changing the batteries every day?
  3. What does it say about the culture of the organisation and the engagement of the staff if this situation was not reported to the management [or perhaps it was reported but not acted upon]
  4. Many organisations outsource their facilities management, one could question whether these arrangements encourage the reporting of such absurdities and whether the people employed in these roles have any incentive to report them.
  5. Does this demonstrate an organisation which knows how to learn and improve?

Do you have any problems caused by inappropriate standardisation?

Would your people report it to the appropriate manager?

Would any action be taken?

What do your customers think when they spot this type of situation?

SMEs – It’s not all about size

Successive [UK] Governments have, rightly, seen SMEs [Small to Medium Enterprises] as the potential engine room of growth for the economy. Having spent most of my adult life working in or with this type of company, I have become concerned that this terminology, whilst accurate, misses the fundamental dynamic of this type of business.

Ownership not size

The key issue is not their size but the ownership and more particularly, the relationship between the owner[s] and the business. I like to call these types of business Family Run / Owner Managed and would like to see the term FROM replacing SME. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, it is a more accurate description of these businesses and secondly, if you are to help them you need to know where the owners are [to use the vernacular of the day] “coming from”.Image

The main danger of using the SME terminology is that the businesses can be seen as miniature versions of “real businesses”that just need growth to be “fixed”. This completely misses the point. There is also an implication that approaches that are successful in larger businesses will also work effectively in these companies – this is not always true.

Family Run – Owner Managed Businesses

With FROM businesses, it is impossible [and inadvisable] to separate the aspirations of the business from those of the owners and the potentially complex personal and family relationships, constraints and tensions. As one client said:

“on any issue, I can have four different views on the same day: my view from my functional role, my view from the perspective of my own family, that from the wider family viewpoint and of course, my personal view – they rarely line up!”

To help FROM businesses, it is important to understand the psyche of the business and its owners. Relevant issues are likely to be:

Positive

  • They are likely to take a medium to long term perspective rather than the often short-term view of managers in large businesses.
  • They are likely to be motivated to succeed and perhaps more resilient to difficult trading conditions, embracing solutions that would not work in large companies.
  • They are committed to the survival of the business – sometimes too committed!

Neutral

  • Skills and capabilities are likely to be focused on what the business does.
  • Desire for growth may be set more by concerns about:
    • Lifestyle / life: work balanceThe owner may consciously or subconsciously limit the success the business achieves to avoid compromising other aspects of their lives
    • SuccessionOther family members may have no or limited interest in the company or its business area.
    • Retirement plans
    • Personal attitude to risk

Negative

  • Reluctance to bring in outside help.
    • Owners can think that spending money on outside support is coming from their own pocket.
    • There may be an element of “I didn’t get where I am today by …”
    • Reluctance to confront poor performance from family members [and long term employees]
    • Risk of generational attrition – gradual decline in capability and motivation [The “Clogs to Clogs” syndrome]

So, if you are looking to work with companies of this type, you need to think about where they are coming from as much, if not more than where you think they ought to be going. The individual, the family and the business need to be seen as different facets of the same diamond,

If you can’t see it from their perspective – you won’t be able to help and they see that you can’t!

Using the term FROM rather than SME will keep the real issues in the front of your mind!

Necessary but not sufficient

In 1950’s Fredrick Hertzberg introduced his two-factor model of motivation.

Hygiene Factors

Pay, Working Conditions, Status etc – don’t motivate but demotivate if missing.

Motivators

Responsibility, Challenge, Control over own work etc. – Turn people on and fire them up.

Whilst this has come under critical examination in recent years and is now considered simplistic, his basic notion that what satisfies does not motivate can be useful in guiding management thinking and action.

The structure of his idea, that what is adequate at one level is not enough for the next level is an approach with broad application.

Many of us focus too much attention on what is necessary for success in our field of interest. We don’t always concern ourselves with whether this is sufficient to ensure we reach our goals.

In the education field, meeting the criteria for passing a course is unlikely to be adequate to obtain a high mark and more importantly may not be enough for real learning.

What gets you a job is usually not sufficient to make you a star performer.

In football [and other sports]  the team that gets you promoted out of one division is rarely good enough to allow you to succeed or perhaps even to survive at the higher level.

Management Competence

IStar Vs Goodn his work on management competence, Richard Boyatzis pointed out that the skills necessary to be appointed to a particular job were not enough for success at that level. He went on to describe how the star performers were not necessarily better at these  core or “threshold competences” but had an additional set of “differentiator competences”which set them apart them from their peers.

In broadly technical roles, the differentiator competences are likely to be personal, interpersonal and communication skills – people with this skill set stand out from their [potentially] more technically competent colleagues. These additional skills are frequently crucial for business success.

What does this mean for you?

Think about this from your business’s perspective:

  • Do you promote people for being good at their current job or for being well equipped for the next.
  • How do you prepare them for the transition?
  • What is it that makes your star performers stand out and how can you spread these capabilities?

If you don’t think this through and put plans in place to deal with it, you will promote the wrong people to the wrong jobs. I’ve seen this happen many times, with companies losing good engineers, accountants etc. and gaining poor managers in the process.

It can be a lose:lose strategy!

Encouraging Enterprise

Encouraging Enterprise StructureIt doesn’t have to be this way, you can develop these stand out skills in your people. Our Encouraging Enterprise approach is an integrated programme of:

  • Training
  • Coaching
  • Guided Work Experience and
  • Senior Management Support

The programme is specifically designed to help professionals with technical skills make the transition into business and management roles.

Process thinking – take the right steps in the right order

Welcome to the next installment of the thinking styles for success series. Today, we are looking at process thinking – this is all about making transformations: essential in today’s hectic world. We often hear about transformational leadership and transformational change but what does this mean and how well equipped are we to deal with it.

Process thinking is based on understanding the steps in any change activity, the ingredients required and the skills needed to effect that change. It’s a bit like cooking: you need to know what you are trying to produce, have the best ingredients and the skills to pull it all together. It is critical that you provide the right conditions for each step in the process and do them in the right order.

You need process thinking to understand the sequence of activities and the methods used for each transformation. Doing the right steps at the wrong stage, using the wrong ingredients or the wrong conditions will not produce the right result. You need to get the conditions for transformation right as well, if the oven temperature is not right, you may under cook or over cook your meal – with potentially disastrous results.

In change processes this implies picking the right actions in the right sequence, involving the right people and creating the right conditions for success. Consider:

  1. If you make your mind up about the approach you are going to adopt before consulting with those involved, then you are sowing the seeds of discontent, opening the risk of resistance and potentially thwarting new ideas.
  2. If you introduce a critical issue in a light hearted manner – you may lose support.
  3. Responding to a query in the wrong way at the wrong time may stifle debate and reduce co‑operation.
  4. If you don’t build a supporting network before starting the process, you may never gain the momentum you need to drive things through.
  5. If you don’t think about the possible sources of resistance in advance, you are likely to be blindsided. Whatever the positive aspects of your proposal, there will be some people who will oppose your ideas because they:
    1. Don’t see the need
    2. Don’t agree with your proposed approach
    3. Don’t see what’s in it for them and
    4. Increasingly these days, they are bored, frustrated or overwhelmed by change

Thinking things through in a logical manner, identifying the necessary steps and the right conditions for change will help. You might find producing a flow diagram will help.

Ask yourself “If I do that, what will happen? … then what? … then what?”

Problems normally arise from the issues you’ve not thought about rather than those that you have given some attention to. A few minutes of carefully directed thought can save you a lot of time, effort and heartache!

So the next time you need to set a change process in action, think about it from a process perspective:

  • What are the steps you need to take
  • Does the sequence matter
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • What are the right conditions for success?
  • Do you have the skills to make it happen?

If you don’t it might make sense to call in some help – don’t cook for an important dinner party if you don’t know what to serve or know how to make it. Call in the experts!

Project Planning – you need be sensitive as well as critical

Planning Process

In an earlier post, I suggested looking at planning as map-making for an expedition. Planning also requires elements of “Process Thinking” as it incorporates three key functions:

  1. Identification of all activities and constraints
  2. Development of the project logic
  3. Estimation of task duration

The key objectives are to identify the required sequence of events, assess the interaction between them and determine the overall timescale for the project.

Planning Problems

In my experience, three things go wrong in this process:

  1. Participants don’t fully understand the interactions between the various activities, especially the “virtual” constraints – where nothing physical happens (e.g. getting planning permission, awaiting drawing approval etc.)
  2. Over optimistic assessment of durations
  3. Fixation on the “Critical Path”

The Danger of “the Critical Path”

This may lead to over ambitious timescales being promised, excessive focus on a few issues and an over emphasis on physical activities. Often it is forgotten that the calculated “Critical Path” depends on the accuracy of the estimates of task / activity duration – change the estimates: change the critical path. Estimates by their very nature are approximate and therefore the impact of variations in these estimates needs to be evaluated.

In consequence a delay may occur when some virtual activity over runs, causing an activity well off the calculated Critical Path to affect the entire schedule.

What is needed, in addition to rigorous investigation is to undertake some sensitivity analysis and recognition that:

  1. Estimates are only estimates
  2. The implementation may take a different route to that planned
  3. You may be “fooled” by the technology – just because it looks neat on the printout, it doesn’t mean it will be plain sailing.
Typical Project Schedule

Project Schedule

It’s the quality of the thinking that matters

What matters is that you think about your plan effectively. Planning is about thinking processes not software.

For the sake of a nail

AFalling Rocks Road Sign common feature of delays in “virtual” activities is that durations can expand in steps, they can accumulate and affect broad sections of the project. The non-arrival of vendor drawings could prevent an application for planning permission causing a a scheduled council meeting to be missed. A delay of one day in one task may lead to a delay of a month or so in the next activity. You might term this a landslide, which emphasises the need to understand the landscape of your project rather than the route map!

You need to be sensitive to the potentials for delay and don’t focus solely on the calculated Critical Path. The real route will be different to the planned journey. Be prepared for the rocks that may fall in your way, you will need to find a way around them.

Being “Best in Breed” may not make you “Top Dog”!

In services it is very difficult to differentiate yourself from your competition and it is even more of a problem for professional service organisations. It is very difficult to be distinctive, memorable and stand out from the crowd when everybody is qualified, capable and seems to be the same.

One route you can take is to become the very best at what your business does – what you might call a “Best in breed” strategy – but is this the best way forward?

“Best in Breed” Strategy

In a dog show, such as Crufts which has just finished, the best in breed winner is the dog which most closely matches the “breed standard”, it ticks all the boxes and has no faults but you have to ask whether the fine distinctions which gain favour from the judges are noticeable let alone memorable to the general public. And of course, there is only room for one “best in breed”.

Moving into the business arena, being “best in breed” may be a useful approach if you have a very narrow niche or have the resources to get ahead of and stay ahead of the competition but it won’t work for most businesses. You need to be different, you need to have personality and you need to build a community of customers who value who you are and how you do what you do. That’s what makes you “you”, makes you distinctive and makes customers [and employees] come to you.

Distinctive and Memorable?

Family DogYou need to have the key elements of the “breed standard” demonstrate capability but it is the other factors which make you distinctive and memorable. Unless you want to compete in Dog Shows, you don’t pick your family dog because of how closely it matches the standard!

All your competitors will have similar:

  • People [qualifications and experience]
  • Processes
  • Experience

Or they wouldn’t be in the business. You need to find a way of being different and that is best achieved through your people and your processes [what you do and how you do it]. To turn some customers on you may have to take the risk of turning some off, not everyone will like what you do and if you try to please everyone, you will end up being bland! You need what my friend Andrew Thorpe calls a “Marmite Pitch”

Very good but very ordinary

If you want to stand out from the crowd, you can’t be ordinary and it is very easy to be very good but very ordinary. Barry Gibbons then of Burger King was quoted by  Tom Peters’ as saying “Even when we did it right, it was still very ordinary”

Ordinary is not memorable and it’s not distinctive.

Extraordinary Expertise

Whether you are in:

  • Accountancy
  • Law
  • Architecture
  • Engineering
  • Project Management
  • Financial Services

You and your people need to be extraordinary and that means paying attention to how you do things and how you interact with your customers, it’s not about getting better at what you do. That is obvious and easy to copy – if you can do it, everyone else can do it. To be distinctive and memorable and maintain this, you need to get brilliant at things that your competition doesn’t take seriously.

This means building outstanding customer care, building strong customer relations and giving your team extraordinary expertise by developing what are often called “soft skills” but they are not soft, they are hard and they are crucial to your business success. You need to encourage enterprise and build distinctive capabilities.

You don’t get to be top dog by being best in breed!

Find a new angle – lateral thinking

This is the next post in the Thinking Styles Series

Lateral thinking

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, our thinking styles can often get in the way of moving forward, particularly in messy situations. Our natural instinct is to think about things in a logical and systematic way but often this can trap us into reaching inappropriate conclusions.

Edward De Bono

Lateral Thinking was first proposed by Edward De Bono in 1967 – I came across the idea a few years later. The concept is to come at your problem or situation from different angles, to challenge the [often unstated] assumptions built into your thinking and seek multiple alternative approaches.

There are strong parallels to some of the ideas put forward in Creative Thinking and it would be easy to dismiss this way of thinking as a sub-set of those ideas, but the concepts are stronger than that. I don’t propose to go into details here because the ideas are easily followed up via the author’s websites. Read Dr De Bono’s own explanation here.

It is, however, critical to recognise that logical thinking will sometimes get in the way and sometimes lead us inappropriate conclusions. This example demonstrates the differences between lateral and logical thinking – revealing a strategy for success which would never be found by conventional thinking.

Vaccinate your thinking processes

In his book, Dr De Bono quotes the case of the switch in thinking styles which allowed Edward Jenner to discover the route to vaccination against Smallpox. Whilst others focused on why sufferers got Smallpox, Jenner turned his attention to asking why milkmaids seemed to be immune to the infection. He postulated that the similar but less aggressive disease of Cowpox provided immunity against smallpox

That “simple” switch of focus allowed a means of preventing this horrific disease to be found and as we now know it has been eradicated.

So when you are faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, why not stand to one side, ask some probing questions about what is and what is not and see if there is a new angle to attack your challenge.

Dare to be different

It is also worthwhile to build lateral thinking into your strategy development and marketing because if you adopt a purely logical approach, you are likely to do the same as your competitors!

Four project management lessons from the BRIT awards

Listening to some of the coverage of the BRIT music awards and the problems that delays caused for star of the show Adele – and her reaction, reminded me of a conversation I had about project scheduling at the start of a major capital project.

The conversation involved me, experienced Project Manager Barry Ryan and our mutual client. In reality, I was a bit of a bystander but the message was valid. The conversation when a bit like this:

Barry: How does a project get to be six months behind schedule?

Client: I’ve done lots of projects but never got to the bottom of that one.

Barry: Well, its one day at a time.

Wise words!

So, what’s the message from this for project management [and time management and event planning for that matter]:

  1. You need to be vigilant from the start – especially if things slow down
  2. You need to understand what is important to all of the stakeholders
  3. You have to be clear about your objectives and
  4. You have to know what you can cut and what you can’t – understand the landscape of the project

If you don’t you’ll get no choice and will end up having to cut what comes towards the end – which may be the most important part.

Project Planning as Map Making

This is the second post on the “Project Thinking” sub-theme which has emerged from the “Thinking Styles” theme.

Planning Importance and Experience

Anyone who has been involved with projects will be aware of the importance of planning and most will have war stories about what has worked and what has not. In my view, planning is misunderstood by many people and often fails as a result.
The key issues are:

  • You need to understand the “landscape” of the project before you can come up with a sensible plan and the ability to respond to what is discovered on the journey [project].
  • The process and the communication involved are usually more important than the plan.
  • The plan is a by-product of the thinking: poor thinking = poor plan.
  • The plan is the current best guess based on what we know now.
  • Reality will be different to what has been planned but forewarned is forearmed.

I aim to set the scene here and will return to the theme in a later post.

Planning and Understanding

To thoroughly understand the project you need to know its geography and perhaps the underlying geology. You need to be able to answer the following questions:

Plans as Maps

To be able to do this effectively there is a need for a series of plans of different types. This is similar to the different types of map needed to understand an area.

  • Broad picture – atlas style
  • More detailed – road map style
  • Detailed – street map / ordnance survey style
  • Specialist presentations – demographics / geological maps

The key difference in a project context is that you have to create each of these maps yourself! In many cases, the starting point and desired end point are known and often the journey time is specified [perhaps with little reference to what needs to be done and the prevailing conditions] but the terrain which needs to be crossed is not known in sufficient detail. Consequently, it makes sense to think of the journey ahead as an exploration. Most projects are one offs: the participants will have been on similar expeditions in the past but will never have been on this precise journey before.

The plan and the journey

To continue the metaphor, the expedition [project] leader will know where they are starting from and the height and location of the mountain they need to climb but not have any idea of how hospitable the terrain between the starting point and the destination is:

  • Are there rivers to ford?
  • Intermediate mountain ranges to traverse?
  • Deserts to cross?

There is also the potential for an imbalance between the route to be taken and the resources available, the fitness of the team and the tools available. There is a danger [see Project Planning – the 4th Dimension] that the timing will be set on the basis of optimum resources and the budget set on a less generous basis.

Project planning as a change process

As with any change process, involving the team in the process is really helpful both in terms of arriving at better solutions, reducing resistance and gaining commitment. If they produce the map and understand the landscape they are crossing then they will be both more focused on producing a good map [their success depends on it] and secondly, they will be aware of options on how to accommodate changes in circumstances. This will lead to greater motivation and less stress when the inevitable diversions become necessary.

It also is likely to lead to a more helpful understanding of the purpose of the plan and degree of confidence to be placed in the current plan. The mind-set becomes one of accepting the plan as being the current best [informed] guess of the best way forward and an understanding that some of the fine details of the route will only become apparent when one ventures into the unknown.

Remember, without involvement, there is no commitment; so, worry less about producing the plan and put more effort into facilitating the planning process and developing a shared understanding of the expedition.

All Systems Go! – Systemic Thinking for Understanding and Insights

This is the next posting in the Thinking Styles series: See Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking for an introduction to the series.

If you have a scientific background (and probably even if you don’t) you are likely to pride yourself on being able to think systematically. But, can you think systemically?

Systems Thinking

Systematic thinking with its logical, sequential and linear approach is very important and contributes to most of the thinking styles covered in this series. Systemic or Systems Thinking is much less prevalent but potentially even more important.

The approach looks at systems [dynamic entities with interactive elements that act as purposeful units] and their relationship to their environment [everything outside the system]. The concepts build on the ideas of Russell Ackoff, Peter Checkland and latterly, Peter Senge amongst many others.

Systems thinking starts with some relatively straightforward concepts and can provide insights into the most complex of natural and man-made entities.

Systems thinking encourages you to:

  • understand the system as a whole
  • to examine the interactions between parts
  • to see how the system interacts with its environment.

Getting Started

A great starting point to understand the subject is Gene Bellinger’s Website

There are also some excellent learning resources on the Open University Systems Websites:

Systems Thinking and Practice  and

Systems Thinking and Practice: Diagramming

Diagrams and Facilitation

The diagramming ideas are incredibly useful for helping you getting to grips with complex situations and can be particularly helpful to encourage dialogue, build shared understanding and tease out different perspectives from groups facing seemingly intractable problems. They should be part of any facilitator’s toolkit. [The Fifth Discipline Field Book by Peter Senge et al is also a very useful resource for facilitation techniques and I’ll return to this in a future posting]

Influence diagrams are fairly easy to produce and very useful for facilitating discussion. Producing the diagram encourages effective dialogue and this can be as, if not more valuable, than the diagram itself.Simplified Influence Diagram

Simplified Influence diagram for Selling Services

Influence diagrams highlight the interconnections between the various issues. By adding information on the direction of influence these can be developed into multiple cause diagrams  which can help you to identify reinforcing and self-sustaining loops.

Reinforcing loops, also known as virtuous or vicious circles (depending on whether they are positive) are often buried in the depths of real life issues. Self-sustaining loops tend to bring systems back to equilibrium and can sometimes explain why it appears to be impossible to effect change.

Peter Senge suggested a set of frequently recurring structures resulting from various combinations of Reinforcing and Balancing structures. These are often called archtypes: no doubt you will recognise these elements in some of the situations you come across.

Simplified Example for Coaching

The very simplified graphic below shows how two reinforcing loops [empowering and depowering circles] limit individual performance with a self-sustaining element of the notion of self-worth. This is an example of the “limits to success” archtype.

Empowering and De-powering circles in equilibrium To shift the balance between the two circles, the individual needs to develop a different perception of their own self-worth. The situation is naturally much more complicated than this as the causal loops (circles) are much more complex and the notion of “Self-worth” is itself part of a complex set of interactions. Nevertheless, this simplification can be of great help in coaching situations and can shift the focus from performance to beliefs, which can then be worked on.

Next Steps

This brief introduction has not even scratched the surface of the subject and if you would like to be pointed towards some additional sources of information on Systems and Systems Thinking, please let me know at jim@fulcrum-management.co.uk

Let us know if you’d like some help with systems thinking, facilitation or problem solving – call us today