Monthly Archives: June 2011

To catch a fish – you need to go fish!

Early in my career, I worked with an outspoken, verbose and loud senior Engineer from the Southern States of the USA. He had a machine gun delivery talking at 50 to the dozen and could be hard to follow.

He always started every day with the same question.

Are we going to cut bait, hook up or go fish?

It took me a while to catch his meaning but once I did, I realised it was an excellent way to start the day – preparation is necessary but at some point you have to take action. No action – no results.

So are you ging to:

  • Cut bait
  • Hook up or
  • Go Fish


[Human] Nature abhors a [Communication] Vacuum!

A conversation about change reminded me of a [relatively] painful lesson I learned a few years ago.

I was a director [VP] in a medium-sized Professional Services Organisation and we needed to move to a new office. We scoured the area for suitable premises which met our criteria for:

  • Location
  • Public transport links
  • Parking
  • Style and Substance
  • Working conditions etc

Having visited just about every potential location in the area, we turned our thoughts towards building our own offices.

What we didn’t do was to keep the rest of the company advised of our progress!

The rumours circulating the office suggested that we had found somewhere but it was so bad on one or more of these attributes that we didn’t dare tell anyone until the deal was done. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Fortunately, someone thought I was sufficiently approachable and brought it to my attention.  I was able [with some difficulty] to get an update out to the workforce and allay their fears.

The lesson is that you can’t not communicate and whatever fills the communication vacuum will be much worse than the reality. Saying nothing sends its own message.

So unless you are bound by confidentiality or there is a good business reason for keeping quiet, you must give out all of the relevant information – even if it is to say that you are not making any progress!  If there are good reasons for not making a disclosure – you can communicate that fact too! “We are making progress but don’t want to jeopardise negotiations”, “We can’t comment on this because of … but we will let you know as soon as we can”  etc]. Your team is smart enough to know that not everything can be made public but don’t appreciate being kept in the dark unnecessarily.

It can also be helpful to publicise the criteria you are working to and seek suggestions.

Silence is definitely not golden!

A spoonful of Sugar – the Engineer Strikes Back!

This isn’t the blog post I’d planned for today but Lord Sugar’s comments on the latest episode of the BBC Apprentice series can’t go unanswered. This Management Today blogpost provides the background and some commentary.

In the process of firing Glenn, Lord Sugar commented that he’d never met an Engineer who was a good manager. He must have been walking round with his eyes closed and / or not listened to anyone for long enough to find out about their background. In fact one of the panel, he uses to make the selection of the finalists, Bordan Tkachuk – CEO of Viglen, whilst not a fully qualified Engineer, has a technical background with a HND in Computer Science – I wonder what he thinks of his boss’s comments?

Lord Sugar’s comments don’t match my experience; some Engineers given the right exposure, training and experience can become excellent managers, business people and entrepreneurs. Sadly, two elements of the British psyche conspire against this:

We under value Engineering

We dilute the value of Engineering, Engineers and Engineering Qualifications by allowing anyone who does any task remotely connected with any type of machinery or process to call themselves an “Engineer”. It takes a degree and around 7 years postgraduate training and experience to become a Chartered Engineer – which is comparable with other professions.

Even businesses which ought to know better do it. British Gas which employs many professionally qualified  Chartered Engineers thinks it is acceptable to call the person who fixes your boiler an Engineer. These valuable workers would be better described as Fitters, Mechanics or Technicians.

This common use of the word “Engineer” would be illegal in Germany – I wonder why Germany has a much better reputation for Engineering than the UK?

We don’t train our managers

We don’t put enough effort into management training, preferring the “gifted amateur” approach referred to by the late Sir John Harvey Jones in his book “Making it happen”.

There appears to be a deeply rooted antipathy to training in the UK, both on the part of the managers and of those to be trained. It is possible that this stems from historical attitudes. We have always admired the effortless amateur who can ‘beat the professional at his own game’ and we have always been somewhat contemptuous of intellectuals and academics. ‘Real men’ in our folklore are men of action, and we admire physical courage more than moral integrity. But there is no doubt in my mind that training in Britain is a grossly undervalued source of competitive advantage.

Professor Michael Porter [with Christian  Ketels] of Harvard Business School made much the same point in his 2003 report – UK Competitiveness: moving to the next stage to the then DTI.

We reap what we sow!

It’s not where they come from …

Properly trained professional Engineers can become excellent managers and the combination of skills from both arenas is needed to re-build our reputation and capability. Not everyone, whatever their background, can become a great manager, nor would we want them to. Some accountants make great managers, many don’t; some marketing people make good managers, many don’t; it’s just the same for Engineers.

What Engineers can contribute

I’d contend however, that professional Engineers’ knowledge of systems, processes and control would be beneficial to most organisations. [I’ll return to this theme in future postings.]

A basic knowledge and understanding of Project Management would not go amiss with the candidates in The Apprentice who seem incapable of  working out the objectives of each task and structuring an appropriate plan of action.

What you can do about it

Encouraging Enterprise is an integrated development programme designed to provide professionals of all types with the commercial, communication and entrepreneurial skills they need to succeed in management and business development roles. Please contact me for more details.

For the record, I’m a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. I’ve been in management and business for more years than I care to mention and took an MBA several years after I too had been thrown in at the deep end!

Is it simple yet?

It was November 1995. I had finished my MBA studies and was awaiting my results. I’d also had a very busy few years as a director [VP if you are in the USA] of a business which designed and built chemical and pharmaceutical plants . We’d just finished a couple of very large and challenging projects.

So I took a well-earned holiday in Florida and did my best to put work out of my mind!

One day we visited the Disney Institute and saw how the animators worked. The drawing boards [it was pre-Pixar in those days!] had examples of their work at various stages of completion from rough outlines to finished “cels”.

Then I saw it – on one of the last boards with its exquisite, detailed and beautifully finished “cels” … in the top right hand corner, a small, battered, curled-up yellow post-it note inscribed with the words …

“Is it simple yet?

IPost-itt was a revelation – the artist who had produced this stunning piece of work was seeking … Simplicity!

That wasn’t what I was used to in business – I felt that most professionals tried to coat their expertise with a veneer of complexity to demonstrate their knowledge and exclude others.

That post-it pad proved this was misguided thinking.

There is great value in being able to make complex issues simple to understand but it is important not to be simplistic. As Albert Einstein said:

“everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler”.

I came to realise that real experts put a lot of effort into making things simple and that was what marked them out as great performers.

I’ve remembered that moment vividly ever since and I’ve striven to make things simpler.

So what about you? – is it simple yet?

Turning good ideas into effective action


I’ve worked in capital projects for over 30 years. In that time, I’ve seen many examples of great ideas which ought to have been put in to action and lots of really bad ideas which have had money thrown at them. A few years ago, I co-authored a paper for the Irish Academy of Management which looked at how internal systems, policies and procedures had limited the ability of a couple of companies who were trying to enter a growing market sector and enabled another [with arguably fewer resources] to do so effectively.

I was also mindful of an interview I’d heard Michael Porter give around the time that he produced a report for the Government on UK Competitiveness. He suggested that the strategies developed by UK companies were at least as good as those dreamed up by our competitors but that our top management teams were much less able to communicate the intentions, rationale and requirements of those strategies to their middle managers.


This got me thinking and I produced a Mind Map based on the McKinsey 7S model to structure all of the issues which I thought might have a bearing on the issue.

Mind Map

Strategy Implementation Mind Map

It’s clearly a complex issue which would need a lot of research to sort out but I thought it would be worth my while doing a little digging around and I wanted to test out the LinkedIn Polls feature which someone had recommended.  So I started a poll.

In retrospect, I ought to have thought about it a bit more before diving in but…

I learned quite quickly that the structure of the poll places some significant limitations on what you can ask and how participants can respond but here is what I asked:

What is the main reason stopping businesses from implementing the good ideas they come up with?

The five options I listed were:

  1. Finance
  2. Company systems, policies and processes
  3. Organisational Culture
  4. Skills
  5. Risk Aversion / Self-Confidence

I realised that I had failed to make it clear that I was talking about ideas which were generally held to be beneficial for the business and that the final option was intended to refer to the individuals concerned rather than the businesses. You live and learn!

The poll was open to three distinct groups of people on the LinkedIn Network:

  1. My personal contacts ~ 500 at the time
  2. The Alumni of the Open University MBA programme
  3. Members of the Institute of Directors


The graphic below summarises the results of the poll which drew about 350 votes and around 100 comments across the three groups.

LinkedIn Poll results

LinkedIn Poll results


I had expected that in the in current economic climate, most of the votes would be for Finance – what was surprising was that most respondents felt that cultural and organisational issues were the most predominant cause of good ideas falling by the wayside. Many commentators suggested that Company policies, systems and procedures and to some extent Risk Aversion / Self-Confidence were attributes of Culture too. Several also thoguth that Structure was a relevant issue [harking back to the 7S model].

This seems reasonable  and is worthy of investigation in a more structured research programme.

It was notable that there were comparatively few votes for Skills – what was interesting was that quite a few commentators mentioned that Communication ought to have been added to the list of options. I had in my mind at the outset that communication skills were likely to be a significant contributor [and this had been alluded to by Michael Porter]. So perhaps it was my communication skills which led to the low vote!

The comments on the poll provided some very useful insights into the issue and if you would like to see all of the comments, please drop me a request by email to

What it means for you!

It seems likely that in most businesses, there are cultural and systems barriers which get in the way of good ideas being raised by the workforce and finding their way to the top of the organisation. Similarly, there are barriers which stop the good ideas and strategies of the top team from permeating down to the workforce / implementors in a way which motivates them to take effective action. If you want to move your business forward, you will need to address both sets of barriers.

It also seems that when Finance is put forward as a reason for not taking action, it may well be just an excuse! The real issue may well be that it is just too difficult to get things done round here!

On a brighter note, it seems that where there’s a will, there’s a way – where there is a consensus for action a budget will be found!

Please let me know what you think.