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Sunday, 30 December 2018

What Are You Doing About Innovation? You Need to Take it Very Seriously!

“If an idea isn’t dangerous then it has no right to be called an idea”

Oscar Wilde postulated this thought and it seems to me that he got it (as usual) just about right.

Sensible leaders, if they have anything about them would welcome innovative ideas from anyone in the business and indeed take steps to implement them if they were to the benefit of the organisation.

Sadly, if the idea has merit, it can only too often be rebranded as belonging to a superior or, heaven forfend, the leader him/herself.  It is a great way to stem the flow of new ideas.

Oscar’s view was that an idea needs to be, as he put it, dangerous and we can rewrite that as innovative or daunting or impractical or even revolutionary.

All of these responses are the province of the nay-sawyer who will always find a reason NOT to do something if it will cause them effort or which would involve change.  They much prefer the even tenor of existence to the potential excitement of change.

After all, if an idea isn’t likely to engender change or even make waves, then it can be implemented and probably no-one would notice the difference.

It is the big ideas, the big change agents that can make a significant difference to the success of a business and often to the people in it. Conversely it is those that will cause the most turmoil among the non- believers.

The key is to have a system that encourages the flow of ideas, assesses them independently and then, if the assessors agree, implements them positively and, most importantly, visibly.

There is nothing more depressing than for someone in the business to have an idea for change which is then pooh-poohed and quietly shelved because implementation would cause problems.  All of this, of course, ignores the possibility of benefit to the business.

I know of an automotive manufacturer which has a very formalised way of generating ideas and which has proved to be extremely successful.   In essence, anyone in the business can put forward an idea for change that must include potential savings or productivity improvements properly costed. 

An “innovation” department that is tasked to search for methods either in manufacturing or administration, and that are likely to show value to the business then assesses the idea.

All ideas are published so that everyone in the business is aware of them and if the innovation department decides to proceed, then the idea is allocated a budget and implementation commences.

It may all seem formal but it does eliminate the “not invented here” syndrome that is the bane of innovators everywhere and the fact that the whole system is transparent makes people feel safe to put their ideas forward.

And what is in it for those people?  Certainly not financial gain because there is no offer on the table.  Rather they are shown to be interested, and innovative and this is publicised throughout the business on noticeboards, and on the company intranet. 

Revolutionary?  Yes, it is, but all good ideas are revolutionary.  Just refer back to Oscar Wilde’s maxim and rewrite it to say so.


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Sunday, 23 December 2018

How Do You Hold Your People Accountable? Who Holds You Accountable?

In October 2009 I was in a breakout session at the Vistage Chair Conference where the topic was Accountability.

We all had to decide on a task that we would work on for the following year and another member of the group agreed to hold us accountable (if you see what I mean)

I agreed to hold a colleague accountable for a very long list of actions and another agreed to hold me accountable for my decision - that is, to write a regular blog.

I haven’t had a call from my colleague for ages but after three weeks of writing the blog on a Sunday, it has now become a (very enjoyable) habit and rather to my surprise this week’s is number 500 in the series.

It is worth considering how effective are the accountability practices in your business, that is, assuming that you formalise accountability practices anyway.  It always surprises me that important tasks can be allocated to people and then not really checked and monitored until completion or not as the case may be.

One of our US Vistage speakers, John Johnson, has an excellent pro-forma template which he uses to monitor progress in the implementation of strategic plans and there is no reason why it should not be used in a wide range of activities in a business.

In essence there is an overall champion allocated to make sure that all activities are being carried out as agreed, with other people holding the individual accountable for separate parts of the task.

All in all, the maxim of "monitor, measure, evaluate" makes sure that tasks are completed with a modicum of supervision and just enough to ensure that effective communication is established.

Too often work is allocated without even a timeline, and then the individual is left to get on with the task without supervision and seemingly a complete lack of interest in what is happening.  One of the most important factors in completing any task is to define its purpose – why is this needed and what can I do to accomplish a successful outcome.

Then if something goes amiss, the task goes over time limits which hadn’t really been communicated properly in the first place, results are not forthcoming or worst of all, the “I wouldn’t have done it that way” syndrome kicks in.  Question: have expectations been clearly defined?

If we delegate tasks then we delegate responsibility for successful completion of that task as well.  This, in turn, implies that we give our people the courtesy of expectation of success and give them the freedom to achieve it.

The quid pro quo is, of course, that as a consequence they are held accountable for the progress and finalisation of the task and it is this that is frequently lacking.

It is a simple task to reprimand someone for not achieving expectations but it is equally simple to eliminate the problem by the practice of accountability.

If we monitor, measure and evaluate together then successful completion of the project is far more likely than if we just leave our people to get on with it and just hope that all will turn out well.

Big caveat!  This is not an open invitation to micro-manage the team member.  Rather it pays then the compliment of setting mutually agreed expectations, then letting them get on with the job while offering assistance and encouragement as necessary.

There is nothing so depressing as a constant flow of questions as to how a task is progressing and indeed it takes the eye of the ball rather than concentrating effort.  Trust is essential and equally leaders need to be kept abreast of activity.  The answer is a bullet point report from the team member, say, once a week to the leader together with any problems being encountered.  The leader then needs to back off and let the team member get on with it. 

It’s not easy but absolutely essential.


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Sunday, 16 December 2018

Are Your People Coin-operated? Culture Can Beat That Problem!

One of the most common issues facing businesses at this time is the shortage of people with great attitude and specific skills.  With the lowest unemployment rate for decades and the highest level of unfilled vacancies there is a noticeable increase in salary levels being offered by potential employers.

Not only that but good people are being personally targeted daily to accept sometimes vast salary increases to persuade them to jump ship.
Each of the following examples is different but is affected in some way by the coin-operated question:

No 1 example.  Talking recently to a member of my Vistage peer group employing around 300, it transpired that he had three issues with promotion and recruiting new people.

One of his top young team members, very personable, great attitude, had been offered a salary increase of more than £15K over his current earnings to persuade him to move. After discussions he said that he was happy with his job, his colleagues and his career opportunities and had decided to stay.

Example No 2.  The company had made a decision to split one of the major functions in the business and had offered the opportunity of one of them to the present incumbent, a 12 year tenure team member at the same salary while recruiting for the other new role.

He had fulfilled that role previously and very effectively and this  point was stressed. There would be no loss of seniority but he chose to regard it as a demotion and requested a pay increase to compensate.

Example No 3.  Recruitment of a potential team member to fill the other role under the same terms and conditions went ahead. One candidate seemed very suitable, coming from a larger company now in administration and was very enthusiastic about the potential and the culture of the company.

However he came back a week later to say that he had another offer for a short term appointment at 20% higher salary.

Example No 4. In a professional practice a highly regarded team member gave in his notice having been  offered a position at a higher salary plus a car. The new company was a contractor and the conditions of employment would b manifestly different from those of the professional practice. He persisted however and left the practice.

None of examples are unusual in this climate. A very good friend of mine always believes , somewhat cynically perhaps, that people are coin-operated and higher salaries will always get the best people.

I beg to differ. If an employee moves for enhanced income then we need to ask ourselves a few questions. For example, what differential has persuaded him/her to move?  Are we paying market rates? What are the true career prospects? What are the reasons for looking for a new position in the first place? What effect would keeping him/her on a raised salary have on the other people in the business?

There is no doubt that a proportion of good people will move to increase their income and that has to be accepted. However if the other features of their employment are sufficiently significant to them then salary becomes less of an obvious feature.

It is said that motivation by salary lasts for one month (or even  week). After that change is not noticed unless it is exceptional. Other factors such as intangible rewards, recognition of performance, self-achievement, and a positive culture are far more persuasive.

Leadership guru Dan Pink suggests that leaders need to offer three features to the team as follows:

Autonomy.  That which allows, indeed demands, that people are sufficiently trusted to do their jobs without the need to be micro-managed

Mastery.  The freedom to develop from being adequate in performance to being exceptional

Purpose. Knowing where one is going, knowing where the business is going, and knowing that they are a trusted factor in the ultimate success of the organisation.

Offering those factors to your existing and potential employees can have a material effect in mitigating the salary issue.


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Sunday, 9 December 2018

Writing a Report, Sending Out a Message? Keep It Short and Simple!

There is a story about a woman whose husband was just about to make a speech at an important dinner, when she passed a note to him that just read:

KISS!”

A friend who saw the note commented that it was a very sweet and supportive thing to do whereupon the woman snapped:

Don’t kid yourself – it means Keep It Short, Stupid!”

There is a case for an amended version in business which is still KISS but this time it can be construed as:

“Keep It Short and Simple”

There is far too much complexity in our lives in just about every sense and we do tend to take that complexity into the workplace (and back home again if truth be told).

For example and many long years I have been propounding the concept of the Five Line P&L which looks like this:

         Sales
         -Cost of Sales
         = Gross Profit
         -Fixed Costs
         =Net Profit

Simple, and tells you pretty well all that you need to know about the profitability of the business.  Drill down a little and see that Sales comprise a combination of volume and price, while Cost of Sales is generally a mix of direct labour and materials plus stock if appropriate.  All of that information can enable the leader to take action without necessarily micro-managing the situation

I recall a Finance Director who became rather tired of sending out enormous and completely comprehensive monthly management accounts to around six regional Managing Directors, so he sent a marker pen with one set of accounts and asked the MDsto mark the places in the accounts that they found of value.

The result was that he subsequently sent out management accounts on two pages with the offer to drill down if anyone wanted it.

Take a look at some of your emails, letters, memos, reports and so on, and ask yourself: What is of true value in this to the reader and what is frankly extraneous padding, commonly known as “stuff”.?

When I was producing 250 page market research studies, I used to start off with an Executive Summary of no more than two pages and bullet points that listed the salient findings of the study, all the relevant backup detail being included in the body of the report.  If anyone wanted to see them then all they had to do was drill down and there it was.  It didn’t, however clutter the situation by expecting everyone to read everything.

We waste an inordinate amount of time and effort in producing epics of such stunning complexity that only have the effect of engendering glazed eyes in the reader.  Our attention span is no more than a few seconds before boredom sets in – not a good thing but it is realism.

It isn’t patronising to keep your communication short and simple.  It is realistic and just means that the reader is more likely to take action and not expire from boredom from the resultant inactivity.  Even worse, complexity can lead to interminable discussion and argument neither of which are conducive to useful and productive action. 

Perhaps I should have read through this epic and used KISS rather more.


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Sunday, 2 December 2018

Shall I or Shan’t I? It Is All a Matter of Conscious Choice!

From time to time someone says something and you realise that it has significant resonance and, gratefully, for me is a topic for the blog.

We had the pleasure of hearing the brilliant Kate Marshall speak at my Vistage Key Executive peer group this week and among a myriad of insights she mentioned choice and how significant it is in our businesses and lives in general.

Having done some limited research as a consequence I am in awe that this little word can have such a defining impact on us, each and every day.

The generally accepted wisdom is that the average adult makes 35,000 decisions a day and given that will not include sleep time, it equates to almost 2,200 an hour or an extraordinary 36 a minute all resulting from choices that we make.

We make a  vast proportion of these choices without thinking about them. They are an integral part of what we do and how we do it.  For example if we are sitting and decide to stand up it is a natural movement and we do it subconsciously. We don’t need to have an internal discussion about it.

However, the next phase is the one that starts off the need for choice. Do I want a gin and tonic or a beer to cheer me up watching rubbish on TV?

There is, of course, a simple process, an algorithm, that we go through in order to come to a decision and it all starts with the choice we make.  

The questioning process is :

  • What is the precise description of the issue?
  • What is the ideal desired outcome?
  • What are the alternative options open to me?
  • What is the cost, financial and other, for each option?
  • Which option seems to be the most desirable?

Make a decision  and take action. (The best solution is to join a Vistage peer group, of course)

All of this process can be collapsed into a simple binary choice, shall I or shan’t I and these comprise most of the 35,000 a day. It is the rest of them that cause us to be more analytical.  

But are we always analytical?  How many times do we say that we have a gut feel about something and make a decision that, on the face of it, could be construed as perverse?

And what about the decision on based on opportunity?  I recall meeting someone at an exhibition many years ago and after a very pleasant conversation he gave me his card and said that if ever I felt like a change I should give him a call.  He turned out to be the Chairman and/owner of one of the biggest companies in Italy with a global reputation. In fact it was a binary choice in the early stage. Do I contact him or not? Foolishly I didn’t.

Shakespeare in Julius Caesar wrote:   There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.   The key to this is “taken at the flood” which implies that some conscious thought has been given to the choice to be made.

Great leaders seem to have an inbuilt ability to cut through all the “stuff” that accompanies a need for a decision and to focus on the desired outcome. Then the choice becomes easier even if the risk element has not been reduced.

In the end we make 35,000 decisions every day and that means that we will get a lot of them right and presumably one or two that could have been better.  It is a matter of choice and thinking about it so that we improve our decision making.

It is largely an unconscious exercise.Try it out.  First thing every day when we get up choose to have a great, productive  day and remind yourself about that choice during the day. It really does work.

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