Category Archives: Communication

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?

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!

Critical Thinking – First step to effective decisions

This is the first of the series of follow-up posts to Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking. This post covers Critical Thinking.

Let’s start with what we mean by critical: unfortunately, the word critical and the related idea of criticism have gained an implication of negativity – this is not helpful. Critical thinking is about getting beyond the obvious, adopting a probing, challenging and investigative stance, not taking the information provided at face value but looking at both the evidence and our thought processes objectively.

Often in business, as in other walks of life, information is assembled to justify decisions and stances adopted based on personal biases, cultural norms and “rules of thumb”. The “Ladder of Inference” originally proposed by Chris Argyris and developed by Peter Senge and his colleagues [The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook] illustrates how these biases can be built into our thinking.

Important decisions should be based on careful consideration of the needs, facts and situation.

One of the most accessible examples of the required process is that referred to in the original post, the film “12 Angry Men” – in which one Juror in a murder trial dissented from the views of his colleagues who wanted a swift guilty verdict.

The “obvious” conclusion.

Juror #8 [Played in the 1957  Sidney Lumet Film by Henry Fonda] was unconvinced of the defendant’s guilt and wanted to explore the evidence in more detail. He pressurised, cajoled and browbeat his fellow jurors into a comprehensive review of the evidence.

  • Could the elderly witness have really reached the top of the stairs to view the defendant’s exit?
  • Could the woman witness have really made an identification from distance, across a railway line without her spectacles?
  • Could the defendant have delivered the fatal blow given his stature relative to the victim?

He also brought into question the motives of his fellow jurors for making a rapid decision:

  • Tickets for a baseball game
  • A business to attend to
  • Escaping from the stifling heat of the jury room

Gradually all the jurors came round to the view that the young man was innocent of the murder and they returned a “not guilty” verdict.

This illustrates the power of a sceptical, challenging and probing approach and the willingness to confront your own biases, faulty thinking and ill-founded theories.

The approach is to:

  • Challenge assumptions
  • Scrutinise and test the validity of the evidence *
  • Examine the thinking processes

Applying this  to your business decisions will reap rewards.

You need to be particularly careful when there is apparent unanimity of thought without thorough discussion of the topic. I am reminded of Alfred P Sloan’s famous quote when confronted with such a situation in the boardroom of General Motors:

If we are all in agreement on the decision – then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.

Failure to engage in effective dialogue when considering important discussions is a route to “Groupthink” – but that is another story!

So don’t be afraid to force a critical approach, to encourage dialogue and to challenge the majority view. Play the “Devil’s Advocate” if necessary and bring in an independent facilitator if you feel it would help.

* The BBC and Open University joint production radio show “More or Less” is excellent at highlighting biases in the presentation of information and statistics.

How flexible is your consulting style?

Reflecting on a successful presentation of “Company Watching” to a group of consultants / interim professionals earlier in the week, I noted that they had been most interested in how an understanding of corporate culture could help them fine tune their style to suit the personality of their clients and potential clients. They recognised that this will help them pitch more effectively and work more effectively once engaged.

The importance of this was brought home to me last night when I watched Peter Jones’s [of Dragons Den] documentary on entrepreneurs “How we made our millions” – BBC 2 [9th November 2011]. It was striking how different the cultures of the two businesses were and the extent to which they reflected the character and style of their owners – Michelle Mone [Ultimo] and Richard Reed [Innocent].

Imagine the challenge of pitching for work to either of them if you were unaware of their respective approaches.

Are you sufficiently flexible to be able to appear credible to both of these companies?

If not, can you become more flexible?

Do you need to qualify your target customers to improve your chances of success?

Either way, you will need to be good at recognising the clues on their corporate culture – “Company Watching” will help you do this.

I’ll be increasing the focus on these issues in future talks and workshops on the subject.

Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking

When you are faced with a critical decision in your business, you probably recognise that you will need to give it some thought but how often do you think about how you need to think about the issues involved?

That’s right! Do you think about how you need to think?

In his seminal work, Six Thinking Hats, Dr Edward de Bono highlighted the need for different modes of thinking at different points in the process and in particular the need for everyone involved to be thinking in the same way at the same time.

I’d like to build on that idea by suggesting eight key thinking styles that you should apply to any critical decision you need to make – I call this Pivotal Thinking. The key themes are outlined below and each will be explored in detail in subsequent postings.

The thinking styles are:

  1. Critical
  2. Strategic
  3. Creative
  4. Systemic
  5. Project
  6. Lateral
  7. Process
  8. Reflective

Critical Thinking

This style is particularly useful for examining information and testing assumptions. It is exemplified by the approach of Henry Fonda’s character [Juror #8] in “12 Angry Men”, probing, challenging and taking nothing for granted.

Strategic Thinking

This approach is crucial for looking at the big picture and long term. It means standing back from the detail and looking at aims, objectives, trends and capabilities. It also means looking at opportunities, threats and options from the perspective of all stakeholders.

Creative Thinking

To get ahead of your competition, avoid getting into a rut and find better answers to the challenges you face, you need to think creatively. Contrary to popular opinion, this can be helped by a structured approach which balances and sequences divergent and convergent thinking, selecting appropriate tools and techniques at each stage.

Systemic Thinking

You probably learned to think systematically at school / university but sometimes there is a need to think about the system as a whole, the interactions between the various parts and the causes and consequences of particular options. This style goes hand in glove with both strategic and creative thinking.

Project Thinking

Managing projects needs a different style of thinking to most management situations. Project thinking requires you to pay attention to the sequence of events, the flow of information and the interactions between events. It is highly relevant to the implementation of strategy and requires focus on objectives, roles and resources.

Lateral Thinking

Your closest competitors are likely to come up with similar strategies and solutions to those you arrive at through logical analysis, so it can be useful to use lateral thinking to arrive at better, non-intuitive solutions. This thinking style, invented by Dr Edward de Bono, encourages you to arrive at better solutions by attacking the issue from completely different perspectives and often through an intermediate unworkable solution.

Process Thinking

In many cases, it can be very useful to use these thinking styles in combination or in appropriate sequences. This is where process thinking comes in – a bit like the Blue Hat in Six Thinking Hats, it will help you select the right thinking style for the situation and decided on the order in which to apply them [and recycle if necessary]

Reflective Thinking

To help you learn and benefit from previous experience, it can be useful to adopt a reflective thinking style. This will allow you to look at what you have done in the past and the results you have got. If you combine it with a critical approach, you may get to the real causes of past failures and successes and develop much improved approaches.

So the next time you think you need to think about something – think first about how you need to think.

Think about it!

One small step – from good idea to effective action

You’ve a burning idea to improve your business, you would like to move it forward but it’s still a bit fuzzy. You are not sure how to get going or even how to describe it to others. Perhaps that’s stopping you from doing anything but it is critical that you take that first step as the classic quote says.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Here’s a suggestion on how to get things moving in a positive direction.

Rudyard Kipling’s famous quotation is a great way to start structuring your ideas.

“I keep six honest serving men: They taught me all I knew:

Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who”

At early stages you should concentrate on:

What you are trying to achieve

How things will be different

Why it is a good idea

Who you ought to involve

The most important issues are to put some structure on your idea, test its validity and generate some support – if you don’t it won’t go any further.

You can focus on the details of what precisely you are going to do and how you are going to do it later. You will probably find that the people you engage with will have different and better ideas about the details – you can’t plan the journey until you know where you are going!  They are also likely to have some good suggestions of other people to get on board.

Critical Stage

Many projects and change initiatives go wrong at this stage because the participants end up doing the wrong project [and sometimes they all end up doing different projects!], so it is vital that you explore the issues and potentials fully at an early stage. This should be an expansive stage, gathering ideas from everyone who has an angle, don’t discount anything at this stage [you can’t generate ideas and evaluate them at the same time], even the seemingly crazy ideas may lead to something really useful.

Value Differences

Surround yourself with different types of people, if they all see things in the same way and bring the same skills, knowledge and experience to the table, you are very unlikely to get any radical ideas. You need to encourage everyone to speak their mind, table their ideas and explain their understanding.

Faciliate the process

To get effective dialogue you will need someone to facilitate the process, so you need to either develop the skills or preferably bring in someone who is skilled, experienced and independent.

If you don’t get into effective dialogue at this stage, then you will find out later than what you deliver is different to what someone was expecting – even if it is possible to put it right later, it will cost a lot more.

See my earlier blog post That’s not what I thought I was getting! for more details.

Key Issues

So at this stage, three things are important:

  1. That everyone is agreed on the destination
  2. That everyone is happy that they’ve had their say
  3. That you take the first step.

Focus on

Focus your attention on three types of reaction to proposals:

  1. One group or individual is keen to have a particular feature and others don’t see the value of.
  2. Ideas which are dismissed without any effective debate
  3. Ideas which are accepted without any effective debate

The first may well mean that there is a lack of shared understanding between the groups / individuals and the others may indicate that whilst everyone is using the same words, they actually mean different things. You need to facilitate the debate and make sure that the aims and objectives of the proposal are understood by all.

If you don’t do this now, you’ll regret it later!

What was that about turkeys and Christmas?

In yesterday’s Sunday Times [9th October 2011], Rod Liddle wrote a short piece about the difficulties faced by BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson, in his attempts to reduce costs by slimming down the middle management of the organisation. Liddle, suggested that Thompson was facing a losing battle as those charged with making the change were those most likely to be negatively affected.

What’s new?

As Liddle commented, some of  Thompson’s predecessors have tried and failed.

This highlights an issue faced by most change agents in this type of situation.

Change Effort and Reward Balance

When I’m guiding change, I use this matrix to help me assess the likely attitudes and motivations of those involved in the change, it helps me to assess the likely sources of resistance and points me to possible avenues to ease these concerns. Having significant numbers of people who can expect low or negative rewards from the process but who are charged with making significant contributions to the process should set the alarm bells ringing.

Issues which might need to be addressed are whether:

  • The scope of the change can [and should]  be adjusted to remove the worst of the negative impacts or to add additional benefits for the this group.
  • The make-up of the group can be modified to take account of motivations.
  • It is possible and / or feasible to bring in temporary support.

and how to improve the messages to actively engage other groups.

Despite the clear motivation issues, resistance from these groups can be quite difficult to identify as it is usually passive. The participators are likely to agree with the objectives and proposed actions, they are likely to be supportive in meetings and agree to handle a reasonable proportion of the necessary tasks – they just never [or rarely]  get round to doing anything. This passive resistance can also be difficult to deal with as the reasons for any delay will seem plausible.

This group has the “advantage” of having significant workloads outside the change initiative and being aware of the key priorities in the current scheme of things to find pressing tasks to fill their time. The question for the change managers  is to decide whether to work round this group or to confront the issue, with the potential for further disruption. A solution must be found if the change process is not to stagnate.

Change agents must also be aware that they are unlikely to get more than grudging support from even those groups with something to gain [see matrix above].

This is succinctly explained by

“there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Niccolo Machiavelli 1469 – 1527

This emphasises the need to communicate effectively with all groups and making the benefits of the proposals clear to all concerned.

If you are contemplating changing anything in your business look here first.

Me, myself and I – understanding stakeholder perspectives

If you have read any of my earlier posts, you will know that I do my best to avoid “management speak” and jargon. I make no apologies, however, for using the term “stakeholders”. It means anyone who has an interest in, can affect or be affected by the business. I find it particularly useful to consider stakeholders in planning and implementing change programmes. Effective consideration of stakeholders and their needs, desires and motivations can go a long way to helping you sell your ideas, gain support and minimise resistance – but you have to do it carefully and put some effort in.

Standard Stakeholder Map

Standard Stakeholder Map

The figure above shows a typical “first pass” mapping of potential stakeholders – this is a useful start but may not be adequate for your needs. In many cases, you will need to break these top-level groups down into smaller subgroups. For example:

Customers: Do they all have the same needs?

Managers: Are specific individuals or functions affected in different ways?

Employees: Are all groups affected equally, are some better organised than others etc?

You will need to break the stakeholders down into smaller sub-groups and possibly consider some people on an individual basis.

Multiple perspectives

It is also worth noting that in today’s more complex environment, some people will fall into several stakeholder groups and that will affect their overall perception. For example, an employee may also be:

  • A shareholder
  • A neighbour
  • An investor – through pension funds etc.
  • A customer

    An individual's perspective

    An individual's perspective

So, their view of any proposed change can be quite complex.

Also bear in mind that the various stakeholder groups are likely to interact with each other.

Mini Case Study

I was discussing this issue with a client who is a third-generation director in a successful family run business [SME]. He said that on any given topic, he can have several different views and that the balance between these might change through the day. So he can have different thoughts about the issue as:

  1. A functional director
  2. As an owner of the business
  3. As a member of the extended family
  4. As Husband / Father in his own family
  5. Himself!

    Case Study

    Case Study

For him to be happy with any decision or change, it has to be right [or at least bearable] from each perspective! No wonder it can be so difficult to get support for your ideas!

What does this mean for you?

Thinking any idea through from stakeholder perspectives will help you to:

  • Sell your ideas by giving you a better understanding of each group / individuals
    • Needs
    • Desires
    • Motivations and
    • Fears
  • You will be in a stronger position to gain support by fine tuning your proposal
  • You will be better able to anticipate and respond to any resistance and
  • You will be much better prepared to engage in a sensible dialogue with any of the interested parties and that could lead to an even better idea!

Company Watching – 7 Ways to understand your client’s personality

We are all very used to the idea that individuals have personalities and moods that affect their demeanor, manner and behaviour. Skillful communicators can adjust their content, style and delivery to take account of these difference. But have you ever thought of applying similar thinking to the companies you deal with?

By understanding their organisational culture [personality] and climate [mood], you will be able to tailor your approach to meet their needs and maximise your chances of success.

When I visit a potential client for the first time, I try to arrive a little early; early enough for it to be likely that I will have to wait but not so early that it looks as though I got the time wrong. In those few minutes, I try to gauge something about what makes the company tick by watching what goes on.

In this short period, it is only possible to get a few initial insights into the way the company works, but any information is better than none. I try to use the following 7 topics to guide my assessment as I get to know the company and its people. As I wait, I’m normally able to pick up a few tips on the first couple of ideas.

Interaction

What is the level and style of interaction between the people you see? Is it formal or relaxed? Do they know each other’s names? If so what do they call each other? [In particular what do they call “the boss” and do they all use the same name?] Do they only talk about work or is there some social chat? etc

Rules and Procedures

The issue here isn’t whether they have rules and procedures, every business needs them, the question is whether they are proportionate to the business and the risks it faces. Are the number and method of publication of rules and procedures appropriate to the business. What is relevent to a major business operating in a highly regulated industry, is different to that required for a SME in a low risk business. Do the rules seem about right, over the top or too slack. [and are people following the publicised rules?]

What is [real] work?

Which of the organisation’s activities are considered as real work – is it just their core activity or is it broader activities, such as marketing, people management etc. Sometimes, this can be picked up from what the departments are called!

It can also be interesting to work out whether informal communication, discussions over coffee / water cooler etc are counted as work; favoured or frowned upon.

How important is time?

Is time seen as a valuable resource or as an enemy. Are deadlines real or purely indicative? Is getting things done by a particular time more important than how it is done [are rules and procedures “bent” to meet deadlines]? Does process and protocol beat the importance of time?

What is the level of acceptance and challenge

Do people accept things as they are, do what they are told and accept management’s explanations or do they challenge, raise alternatives and concerns? Would they point out that the Emperor’s new clothes were non-existent?

Do people co-operate?

What are shared areas like – do they all do their share to keep things tidy or do they leave it to others?

When asked a question do they answer exactly what is asked or seek to provide the required information?

Are people judged by their intentions and actions or the results they get?

This is fairly straightforward – do those who get the right results in inappropriate ways become better regarded than those who do the right things but don’t get the desired results.

If you keep these ideas in mind and keep your eyes and ears open, you will get to know what makes your clients tick and that will help you build better relationships with them – to benefit you both.

By any other name…

Having worked on a couple of projects in Russia, I was interested to see this news item on BBC today.

“Russia classifies beer as alcoholic”

The idea of beer being thought of as “soft” drink got me thinking about the influence the names we give to things influence our behaviour. It reminded me of my first day at Grammar School – in fact the first few minutes!

Our form master introduced himself to us and then gave us some of the basic rules and spelt out the expected behaviour standards. He went on to say …

“You are now at the Grammar School and you are here to learn.
We don’t have a playground, we have a school yard,
we don’t have playtime, we have morning and afternoon break …”

It set the scene and we were left in no doubt that we had to “put away childish things”! I don’t know what effect it had on our creativity but it sure pointed us in the direction of study.

Do the names you give to things in your business have a positive or negative effect on the way you behave?

Could you change people’s attitudes to issues such as performance management, appraisal and staff engagement if you called them something else?

What would could you call them and how would it help?