Tag Archives: Learning

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?

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.


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.

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


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?

Back to front reasoning?

As those of you in the UK will be aware, there is quite a furore at the moment about the likelihood of local public libraries being closed down in response to the Government’s spending cuts. I was intrigued by a story I heard on the radio last week [the gist is can be found on the BBC] because it  demonstrates something which I find very irritating – confusing correlation with causation!

The story suggests that those who use public libraries are likely to be more literate than the average – stating that public libraries are an important contributor to developing literacy. I have no problem with the concept but does the evidence presented actually support the assertion. Surely, it is equally likely that the causal link is the other way round – those who are more literate are more likely to use libraries?

In this case, I think that the assertion has merit but there is a risk that such sloppy thinking could undermine the argument. Connections of this type are put forward with no justification for the proposed causal link. This can get in the way of understanding the real issues.

It could be that:

  • No causal link exists
  • The reverse of the proposed link is true
  • Both items are dependent on some unidentified issue [e.g. population / demographics]

It’s important to bear this in mind when building your case.

Another BBC resource “More or Less” is very good at debunking these spurious claims and encourages the effective use of data and the derived statistics. It’s off air at the moment but the podcasts are  well worth a listen

Business lessons from “Cablegate”

I don’t know if the word has been coined yet – so I may get the kudos of being the first to use it!

Without going into the political issues in this week’s media led furore, the behaviour of our Business Secretary certainly has some lessons for business.

Here are my three top lessons:

Be careful what you say – even in private

What you say in unguarded moments not only betrays your real thoughts but there is always a danger that it will get out into the public arena.

So what do you say in private about your:

  • Customers
  • Colleagues
  • Team
  • Suppliers
  • …?

Would you be concerned if they heard?

What does this say about what you think?

Should you be saying such things even in private?

How would they react if they knew what you thought?

Be true to your values

Your values will always come out – so be true to them. It is very stressful to act in ways which are not congruent with ones beliefs.

I’ve had personal experience of working in organisations where their values didn’t match mine; it affected my mood and performance. I felt so much better when I got out.

Be aware of your prejudices

We all have prejudices – its human nature. The critical issue is whether you are aware of them and try not to be driven by them. This has strong parallels to the first step in Emotional Intelligence – self-awareness.


What do you think?

Have you got any lessons from this?

Have you any useful observations / lessons from others in the public eye?