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Sunday, 27 November 2016

Looking to Implement Change? Watch Out For Denial and Denigration!

How do you recognise contentment and complacency in the business?  Please understand that we should always be trying to design a business that has a culture to which people can relate and feel comfortable.

However it can, if we are not careful, become a culture of complacency and that can be truly dangerous.

If we start to hear people saying things like “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” or “I’ve never had any complaints” we really need to look more closely at what is happening.

It can be evidence of organisational reluctance to change and if that is coming from the top down then is it any wonder that the people will react against change.

Comfort can easily transmute into complacency if we are not careful.   I remember a case when a business for which I was consulting became a victim of its own success with a major customer.  In fact they became so successful that the customer generated almost 90% of the company’s turnover.

I mentioned this vulnerability to the CEO who brushed it off saying “I have the buyer in my pocket”, a very unpleasant and eventually inaccurate remark.

Change happened at the customer’s business when there was a change of buyer who brought in his own preferred suppliers. In turn this meant that my client lost the business and eventually the business itself.

It has been said very wisely that the only real constant in business is change and if we analyse the situation we will find that we are regularly bringing change into the business almost without it being noticed.

However this is not always a smooth path.  Depending on the level of change being implemented and the affect that it will have on people there can be massive and sometimes unforeseen reaction.

Negative change in the way of redundancies or moving venues are obvious causes of adverse reaction but it is odd that when we try to bring in change that will or should impact positively then the reaction can be equally negative.

The symptoms are usually very clear.  We start to hear “We tried that before and it didn’t work” or “Our industry is different” or even, as above “We won’t lose the business with that customer, they rely on us”.

The key to success in implementing change is culture and communication.  It takes time to develop a culture where change is constant and doesn’t cause problems or conflict.

People need to be helped to become understanding of the need to change especially in times of uncertainty and that requires great communication skills on the part of the leadership.

While the written word in emails or intranet can cover the points there is nothing to beat face-to-face contact and to give people the opportunity to question and discuss.

Again, if it is at all feasible, one-to-one communication is even better than groups although for obvious reason this might cause problems in a large organisation.

If the business has a reputation for opaqueness in its communication or merely implementing decisions without adequate explanation or background then there will be resistance.


However if the culture in the business is one of openness and transparency the battle is almost won.  It is up to the leadership to decide on which path to follow.

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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Life Becoming Too Complicated? Then Clarify, Simplify and Focus!

Ask anyone in business these days if running a business and indeed their life is becoming more or less complex and the answer is evident. 

Whatever we are doing there is the inevitable distraction of the email pinging at us that we have to read instantly or deciding to look for something on Google and being then distracted by something else.

It all adds to the complexity of modern living, the very modern living we were told that would be much simpler because of the advent of technology.

Not true, of course.  Modern technology has become both a blessing and curse.  Do we really need any more complexity in our businesses and our lives?

I came across a nice little epigram recently that read,

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

This has been variously attributed to Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci and I must confess the style seems rather more Jobs than Leonardo.

Business is essentially a simple exercise.  We buy something or we make something, add a bit on to the cost and then sell it.  In the end we are all traders and that is a simple way of defining business.

However and understandably there is more to it than that.  Unfortunately we add on a very thick layer of complexity that gets in the way of doing simple straightforward things. Quite frankly that generate costs as well as slowing down the whole process.

I once asked a new member of my Vistage CEO peer group whether he had a to-do list and he said that he did and showed it to me.  There were 72 items on it.  If he had complied with his own strictures on what he needed to do he wouldn’t have had time to do anything else.

More importantly how many of us have a “stop doing” list?

It is a matter of focus on the things in the business that really matter and that demand a strong will in order to ensure priorities are set and followed.

If we are not careful the definition and setting of priorities can be made complex.  We need to work on the premise that a priority has to be or lead to a decision that is truly significant for the business and its people.

Moreover, like the infamous “to-do” list, the number of priorities at any one time should be severely restricted.  Probably no more than four at a time is about right.

In a previous existence I worked in a large engineering company that had a very simple and extremely effective method of dealing with priorities.

When an order came in it was processed and then passed to production.  They had a number, no more than about 10, of red folders that indicated urgency and priority for that particular order.  The sales department could request a red folder but if none were available then the order was processed normally.

It was a very simple system and it worked brilliantly because everyone understood it and didn’t divert from it.

In terms of decision making also our ability to generate vast amounts of data from so many sources can get in the way of defining the real issue. 

We need the ability to focus on what really matters and to accept that we can never have enough evidence. Knowing when to stop analysing and start taking action is the mark of the great leader.  Yes, there is always a modicum of risk involved but it can usually be mitigated in some way.

Astronomer Johannes Keppler said that nature loves simplicity and unity.  A good summery is to clarify the position, simplify it as much as possible and then focus on what action to take.

There are many politicians never mid business leaders who would benefit from that philosophy.

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Sunday, 13 November 2016

Concerned About a Problem? You Can Use Emotions, Rationality or Intuition!

Professor Steve Peters in his life-changing book, The Chimp Paradox, discusses the impact of two of the brain functions, those of emotional and rational thinking.

He makes the point that we are supplied at birth with a part of the brain over which we have virtually no control in just the same way that we can’t control the colour of our eyes.

This part of the brain that he calls the Chimp is that which controls our emotions and feelings.  We all know how we can brood over some event and worry about its impact and what effect would it have on our lives.

In the film, The Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks, someone asks the hero if he is worried about the situation.  He asks, “Why, would it help?”

Many years ago I was employed as a specialist technical engineer for a particular engineering product.  I had a stormy relationship with the Leeds Branch Manager of the company who called me one Friday afternoon to say “I want you in my office at 9.00am on Monday morning” and put the phone down.

I spent the weekend in the realisation that I was about to be fired, that I would have no job, my marriage would fail and there was nothing for it but to jump off Beachy Head.  It was a downward spiral of negativity.

I arrived at the Leeds office as demanded, and in a state of sheer panic as to what was going to happen, he said, “Thank you for coming over at such short notice.  We have a problem with a customer for your product and you are the only one who can solve it”.

Mark Twain said, “I am an old man and I have known many troubles but most of them never happened”.

It is usually the Chimp talking and it needs to be managed by a touch of rational and logical thinking.  By standing back from the problem and analysing what can be done the emotions can dissipate and we can regain our calm rather than being agitated.

There is, I believe, another facet to this theme.  As we progress through life we naturally build a vast database of experience and knowledge some of which is valuable and some, on the face of it, useless.

Nevertheless it is there in the depths of our subconscious and it is just a matter of recall to be able to use the experience in the present.

We call it our gut feeling or intuition but I prefer to look upon it as the result of experience stored in the database of our mind.

There are instances where we can actually draw on experience to tell us how we should proceed and that is rational.  However, if we just allow our brain to wander over a problem with the intention of solving it then it can often do the trick.

I recall an instance where a member of my Vistage CEO peer group had a serious problem in his business and I suggested that he take a day out just to think about it, to take a metaphorical walk on the beach.

He resisted for a while but eventually took a day off to think about the problem.  He didn’t walk on a beach but stayed at home quietly overlooking his garden and meditated. 

He said that the result was neither positive nor negative.  There was in fact, no immediate result.

That was the same day but a couple of days later he told me that all of a sudden the answer had popped out and he could move forward with some confidence.

The fact is that we can often trust our experience to work on an issue and let what appears to be intuition take over. 

We have often been there before and the experience has disappeared into the recesses of our mind.  A little quiet reflection can bring the solution out.  Leaders should never disregard the power of taking time out just to do some thinking.  It is always time well spent.

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Sunday, 6 November 2016

You Think It’s Impossible? Steve Jobs and Henry Ford Would Disagree!

I have been listening again to the audiobook biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  Jobs could be a self-opinionated, arrogant brat or a sensitive soul in the course of a conversation but with all his personality faults, he was undoubtedly a genius.

His ability to have people do things that, on the face of it, were impossible using his “Reality Distortion Field” was nothing short of astounding.

For example, the launch of the original Mac had been scheduled and two weeks prior the technical people told Jobs that they would need at least two more weeks to make sure the software bugs had been eliminated so the launch would need to be postponed.

Jobs told them that two weeks was enough to get it right and the launch would go ahead as planned.

They did get it right working twenty-four hours a day and the launch went ahead. 

Coincidentally I saw on TV this week a reprise of the 2015 Great British Bake-Off culminating in a win for the wonderful Nadia.

She was interviewed very soon after being told that she had won and among all the emotions swirling round her she said with great emphasis that she would never say that she couldn’t do something ever again.

We are surrounded in the media by gloom mongers and naysayers all of whom greet any idea however simple or revolutionary with a shake of the head and a barrage of tut-tutting.  They seem to look for any reason not to do things rather than embrace change.  The BBC calls this balance.

The fact is that if we don’t know that something is impossible then we can go ahead and do it. 

The great leaders are able to persuade their people that nothing is impossible.  It’s called the Can-Do attitude and it works.

The example of Steve Jobs, preferably without the personality flaws, is one that should be followed by anyone looking to bring innovation into a business. 

However we have to accept that because the very though of innovation implies a modicum of change there can be a natural reaction against it.

If a business doesn’t embrace change as a matter of culture then it will slowly wither. The time to embrace change is always now.  It has been wisely said that the only constant in any business should be change.

The Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field approach is not one that can easily be replicated.  It demands a blank refusal to accept the obvious with a determination to rewrite reality and that isn’t always easy or even practical.

Then again few of us are like Steve Jobs so we need to develop techniques that drive both innovation and the can-do attitude into the culture of the business in a way that is acceptable and motivational.

The power of positive thought is just as effective as that of negative thinking.  Great leaders drive a positive culture into the business and that needs to become a habit.

If we constantly say that something is impossible or we can’t do it, then nothing will be achieved.  Conversely the more we say that we CAN do something then we are more likely to achieve.

Henry Ford said, “If you say you can or you say you can’t, you are always right”.
Now that is a very wise thought.

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