A series of short articles shining a light on business management.

Snap – a little Crackle – and it’s all gone: POP! - lesson in decision making from the recent political drama - July 2017

June’s General Election was meant to be a quick-fix, but sudden decisions or rushed, ill thought out solutions hardly ever deliver a strong or stable result and problem solving needs deeper, broader thinking.

Whatever your personal political bent, there is a general consensus that Teresa May’s decision to call a snap election has backfired and, having put all her cereal in one bowl, so to speak, she found the milk of human kindness poured unexpectedly in a different direction (left rather than right) and there’s little now remaining that’s crisp or clear. Instead, there’s just a soggy mess that’s entirely unappealing all round. What is worse, the time and political effort now being expended on securing a coalition deal, reworking the manifesto headlines, unexpectedly earmarking funds for temporary partners and fighting a rear-guard PR campaign, could have been better used dealing with the pressing needs of running the country. In short the decision has not only failed to meet its objective it has now generated additional problems

The desire to push ahead with the first or most immediately obvious answer to a problem, in the hope and expectation that whatever comes afterwards will be an improvement on the status quo, is manifestly rash, yet in business as in government – time and again- the pressures managers are put under to move things along and keep the operation running like clockwork cause similarly short term and ultimately unproductive quick-fixes to be reached for.

Our media might love the circus of a hung parliament, but hard pressed managers all over the country in offices, factories, warehouses, hospitals, building sites, etc need to think longer term if they are to avoid taking poor decisions, made in a hurry that might feel good in the short term, but then see them unable to lead the team efficiently or productively in the long term.

So, let’s re-engineer the thinking a bit

It’s important to get away from linear thinking that looks something like this:

We have a problem,

     we need to do something about it,

         here is something, so

              let’s do that and move on.

This is known as “the illusion of taking charge” and, as we have just seen in Westminster, it creates more problems than it solves.  On the surface it looks decisive, the sort of 'thinking on their feet' that managers are paid handsomely to deliver every day.  All too often though either the original problem resurfaces soon after (at which point it is treated as a new problem) or unintended consequences hit another part of the organisation without warning (where, you've guessed it, it is treated as a new problem).  Its known in the trade as "the fix that fails" but, due to this separation of cause and effect, the two are rarely connected and learned from.

Instead, managers need to approach their problems with a broader, systems-based perspective: one that not only factors in the what if questions but recognises the knock on implications in the wider system. The best way to do that is to bring the other parts of that system into the room and make decisions collaboratively.

It’s clearly a more demanding concept, but that is partly the point – well considered problem solving in business is often demanding. However, if you confront that reality at the beginning the fallout is less likely to be catastrophic down the line and consequently, you won’t be running around trying to put plasters over all the cracks that open up when you rush headlong into implementing the first idea that comes to mind, however good it might initially seem. 

The last 2 weeks of political machinations offer a text book example of plastering over the cracks.

Think Systems rather than Machines

Machinery breaks down from time to time and a reductionist approach to problem solving is usually best - gradually test and eliminate possible causes until you Isolate the faulty part and either mend or replace it. Fortunately, machines don’t protest when being fiddled with, they don’t  gang up with other disgruntled machines to undermine things, and they don’t need coaching on how to get along with a replacement part.

Human beings, however, are not (usually) so easy to repair if something is wrong. Problems at work are rarely one dimensional and attempts to improve productivity or morale or team spirit based on one individual manager’s ideas about one aspect of an issue, leading to one simple and quick answer for one part of a wider problem – may bring short term relief, but at what future greater cost?  A poorly performing team is rarely the result of just one person's actions and so 'fixing' them in isolation simply will not work.  Indeed other staff may come fear being next on the list for management attention and thus team effectiveness may actually reduce further.

To prevent the “fix that fails” a big step back and a long pause is a good starting point, regardless of the clamourfor immediate action.

Then adopt what is sometimes called systems thinking: essentially weighing up all the factors and examining the “what if” scenarios and potential consequences of any decision. Crucially, if you have a specific goal in mind (obtaining more support for your new big project for example, so as to prevent malcontents’ objections getting in the way down the line) at least ask what might happen if things don’t go as expected and, where possible, introduce procedures or practices that address the complex interrelationships of the wider workplace and will thereby mitigate against any potential further difficulties.  Even better, bring that system into the room – invite those with the potential to benefit or lose out to contribute to this wider thinking.  The process may be tortuous at times but, once a decision is reached, moving forward is less likely to be compromised by petty disputes and unexpected delays.

Admittedly, given the political landscape of the UK just now, it’s probably not possible to have cross-party input to Brexit or any other issue – politicians are by and large far too polarised in their everyday thinking to accommodate such a move, even though public opinion seems to be in favour of a more adult to adult approach to society’s big issues.  In contrast, the business world need not be shackled by such artificial divides.  As a result it should be easier to seek to collaborate, to consult with others, to recognise the interdependent roles of teams and individuals and to adopt an all-encompassing problem solving approach that identifies the impact of decision making across the widest possible horizon.

If you can implement this systems thinking approach to problem solving, rather than relying on snap decisions which appear viable on the surface of things; well - as many Conservatives may now concur – you’re much less likely to be shredded wheat the morning after the night before.



Learning to Learn – Lessons from the Six Nations - March 2017

"Experience is not what happens to a man but what he does with what happens to him."

Aldous Huxley

It’s not always easy to know what changes to make if your company is under performing or your team is achieving less than it might. This article examines how we choose to learn from our experiences in order to inform the direction of change and why perhaps, if all we ever do is tinker a bit with this and that, as opposed to opting for a radical rethink, we sometimes don’t truly learn the lessons of experience as well as we might.

As the Huxley quote above suggests, learning has to be a considered and active response to an event, something that takes time and effort.  Failure to do this can lead to  someone reflecting on a 20 year career only to find that it constituted one year of experience repeated 19 times.

Let’s look at it this way…

We’re in the middle of another Six Nations Rugby tournament, fuelled by national pride and cultural rivalries and exhibiting all the passion and tenacity that top sportsmen can bring to the field of play. (For the purposes of this blog my own allegiance is irrelevant.) It’s pulsating stuff; it’s often fast and furious and it’s a competition in which all teams, there’s little doubt, are fully committed in every game. But, as England found last weekend against Italy, an unexpected change of tactics by their opposition took them by surprise and, arguably it took them a long time, in the context of the game, to adapt to the challenge.  The energy they could have put into adapting was instead spent appealing to the referee and doubting the legitimacy of the tactics.

Some workplaces are like that. The staff seem well motivated and up for the daily challenge; ready and willing to apply themselves to propel the business to greater success, but, perhaps, sometimes reluctant (or slower) to embrace changes that don’t conform to previously understood and learned modes of working.

In The Six Nations, despite the undoubted commitment on show, we watch game after game of attrition-dominated play; the forwards happily crashing about, and we may say to ourselves: “that may work in this competition but you will need to do something different against the more adaptable southern hemisphere sides".

Understanding that there are two different types of learning may shine a light on the problem.  The first type is additive (often called acquisitive), where we learn a new fact (or tactic), one that does not call into question our prior understanding/viewpoirt and we happily add it to the ‘toolbag’.  Learning to paint does not involve unlearning to write, and learning more anatomy does not undermine prior medical knowledge..

The second is transformational learning, where what we encounter constitutes a fundamental challenge to our prior beliefs and approaches.  This type of learning requires struggle, experimentation, frustration, and a healthy dollop of mental maturity – accepting that you don’t know everything.  It’s not that there have been no changes or advances since England won the World Cup in 2003, but that new ways of playing the game involving greater fitness, squad rotation, planned & tactical substitutions, defensive strategies etc., have all been transformational learning, requiring as much un-learning as it does taking on board new ways.  As is often the case with things that we struggle with, there is always the risk of reverting to old ways when things aren’t going well, because – “at least we know how to do that’. It’s a bit like encountering someone who doesn’t appear to speak our language.  Instead of learning the lingo (which is hard and may require getting our heads round new grammar rules), we revert to slowing down and speaking louder in our own language!

The fact is that we seem to prefer to “fight” a potentially transformational change – the “it’s just not the way we operate, it won’t work here, therefore it's worng” mentality (e.g.,appealing to the ref), or we adopt a “flight” approach – disengaging with the new learning and resetting our objectives. With our rugby teams this could be concentrating on our performance in the Six Nations each year rather than putting too much emphasis on the World Cup.

Similar attitudes can dominate the workplace. It seems that, regardless of the hard and often uncomfortable lessons from past experience, learning and future progress is often dominated by building on what we know rather than risking a truly transformational approach. Conforming to this preferred, acquisitive learning means change is often one dimensional and opportunities are missed.

Transformational learning – opting to do something radically different, (running in a different direction instead of just passing the ball, or the buck, down the line), is of course very unsettling and often won’t work first time, but that goes with the territory. If we can accept that we will have to struggle in order to let go of the old ways and simultaneously embrace something truly new, aiming to achieve a better outcome in the future, then we can begin to enthusiastically take the risk.

When we do that, we can truly say that we are learning to maximise the lessons from our past experiences and, perhaps, we can then take on the world or the wider market-place with a cutting edge to our game.

Blog 8     Walk the Course      January 2017

....and you could win the race…

 You’re on the starting line… You’re appropriately attired…Your steed looks to be in fine fettle…

But crikey, those fences look like they’ll be hard to get over in one piece. What if you crash and burn? After all, you might know all about this riding lark, but this is an unfamiliar track. Around you, everyone else looks confident and, when you were all chatting earlier in the jockey’s room, it was clear that several others had great ideas about how to tackle today’s challenge, keep themselves safe and potentially even win the race.

The starter’s flag goes up and you suddenly realise you’ve no specific ideas about how to ride this course. No good backing out now though…here goes - the tapes up…and they’re off. How many hurdles will you get over before you inevitably fall and how bad will that fall be? Potentially catastrophic! You’ll be a laughing stock….

If only you’d walked the course and prepared a strategy for the race. Why didn’t you do that? You should have. You have to!

It’s exactly the same when you need to deliver a pitch at a Networking Event – Prepare, be Precise and understand the Pace you need to go at to get through it safely and come out on top – or, at the very least, unscathed! Don’t get distracted by the “open-networking” bravura you may hear others indulging in before the challenge commences. Know what you plan to do, how and why.

Here’s a guide to help you, as it were, to stay on the horse.  Just remember the 3 Ps.

Be Prepared

Knowing your business isn’t enough. Think about what you want to say, how you want to say it and practice it once or twice. Here’s a guide to the essential elements you should include – you might be a little surprised by how basic this appears – but that is the key!

There are five things (plus one) you need to cover:

  1. Your name
  2. Your business name and what it is you do (if it is not obvious from the business name)
  3. The one or two core values you bring to the customer (your differentiators)
  4. A recent success story / testimonial (relevant to that audience and their own contacts)
  5. A call to action (have a one to one, meet me after, etc.)
  6. Repeat your name and business and, if you wish and only if it truly adds some value, sign off with a tag line.

Be Precise

How many adverts have you seen – particularly on the TV, where, at the end you look to the person next to you and say “What was that about?” Sometimes too much of a story, or over reliance on a clever concept that’s outgrown itself, (think: Compare the Market .com?), can dilute rather than enhance the key message behind a product or service. You need to avoid that at all costs.

Don't worry repeating the same core message each time.  Just because you are getting bored hearing the same pitch day after day doesn’t mean the listeners are and there may be new(er) faces in the room who have not met you before.  If that's the week you go off message just to ‘mix things up a bit’, you risk losing a valuable connection. To keep the pitch fresh, rotate your client stories (point 4 above); that way the core message will not change.

Pace yourself

If you’re thinking “let’s just get this over with” or, alternatively, you are overly self-confident, which interestingly can sometimes come over worse than the nervous delivery, you might fall in to the trap of rushing things and fall at the first or second fence. That is in no-one’s interest! In a good networking environment people get behind each other. Consider these propositions:

-       People DO want to hear what you have to say

-       People DO understand that you might feel uncomfortable

-       People DO wish you well

So, they really won’t mind that you deliver the pitch carefully and they will appreciate a genuine opportunity to hear and follow what you have to say. However, pacing yourself doesn’t mean dragging out the pitch and the right pace is best determined by the practice recommended above.

Don’t rush, don’t garble, don’t cram in too much or try to talk about too many aspects of your business at once. Pick one – one that’s topical, or that can be backed up with a good testimonial from a recent client. Don’t wing it and don’t substitute humour for information.

Addressing the uninitiated

It’s a good idea to test out your delivery on someone who isn’t already familiar with your business. I’m not recommending button-holing the Big Issue seller in the High St, but it’s important to remember that when you go networking the people for whom your pitch will have the greatest value will be those who haven’t heard it before/recently or aren’t already aware of what it is you do.

Good networkers realise that they are not only speaking to the room, they are speaking through the room; they are wanting to access the people you know.  You stand no chance of accurately conveying to your contacts what it is a networking colleague does if you didn’t understand it in the first place, so you owe it to them to be Prepared, Precise and Paced.

Measuring your success

A CV is designed to get you an interview, the interview then gets you the job. It’s the same with a networking pitch.  Its purpose is to get you 121s. The relationship you build up through 121s will get you the work. So, be relaxed – have a little faith – stick to the time allotted. You can do it. What’s more – you can do it well. After all, who knows your business best?  You do!

Get it right and deliver your rehearsed pitch within the time allotted; everyone else will then know what you are all about and they will hold you in high esteem for doing a good professional job conveying that to them.

Blog 7     Surprise, Surprise!    November 2016

In this blog I examine the notion of surprise in business and argue that not only can leaders choose how to react they can also can turn being surprised to their, and their companies’, advantage.

When I studied for my Masters degree  a few years ago, I did some research into the concept of surprise.  Interestingly it polarised opinion amongst the managers I contacted.  For some respondents surprise was associated with failure and triggered a search for blame and protection. Others seems energised by surprise, seeing it as an opportunity to learn and do new things.  I also found that the tolerance of surprise was inversely proportional to seniority – the closer to the boardroom, the less ‘surprise friendly’ we seem to be.

An unintended consequence of the blame response is a suppression of the notion of there being benefits to the unexpected, potentially creating a cultural and widespread inability to cope with the unpredictable. As with many other ‘skills’ the less willing we are to be surprised the less able we are to deal with it when it comes. And so it is in business. Managers who can’t entertain the notion that things may not go exactly as planned or refuse to embrace new opportunities if they don’t, can induce a crippling inertia in office teams or business colleagues.

However, if a manager or team leader chooses to plan for the unknown, simply by embracing the possibility of being surprised, that in itself can permit positive developments and useful learning to be enabled within the team or businesses’ approach to the task to hand and, equally importantly, to any future tasking.

Take this story - A man and his granddaughter were on a flight that was unexpectedly diverted by bad weather.  Whilst the business people around them were moaning about airline inefficiency and asking for complaint forms, the girl took the opportunity to find interesting facts about the new destination from her grandfather.  Everyone on the flight was surprised but only one of them learned.

Let’s face facts – businesses, large and small face daily uncertainties. Careful planning and diligent research that seeks to reduce the risk of disruption when the unexpected strikes is to be applauded, but overly rigid adherence to “the” plan or “the” structure is potentially un helpful.

In his article “10 Tips for Dealing with Surprises and Unexpected Events” Remez Sasson advocates being prepared for and responding to the unexpected in a number of ways and, of those 10, the most relevant for a business context include:

  • Acknowledge that surprises in business are unavoidable
  • Recognise that what may be perceived in itself as a negative event can lead to redirected ambition, fresh motivation and greater persistence – leading in turn to progress and success
  • Take a breath – pause – assimilate the surprise. How bad is it really? If disruptive, can it be fixed easily?
  • Make the most of what is the new now – the new situation.

If a leader can exude these qualities and thus set a tone that embraces the unexpected, it’s likely that the team will follow suit.

On a seasonal note, winter is coming…it might snow, it might not – but let’s be open to all eventualities and be ready to build a snowman.

Blog 6            Successfully Preventing a Staff Mutiny        August 2016      

An Overview of Transactional Analysis tools, with Fletcher Christian and William Bligh

Are you the boss?

How can you deal with poor performance or dissent among your staff, without losing respect?

Picture the scene: Tahiti 1789 – an ocean paradise: R & R for a group of overworked, tired, homesick and lovesick sailors. Does that sound familiar?  Some, if not all of those feelings are perhaps not altogether unlike those sometimes felt by staff in today’s 21st Century office environments.

If you’re in charge, you need to be able to deal effectively with difficulties or disputes that, from time to time, will probably arise. How you react could determine whether you find yourself still at the helm or cut adrift from the team.

From Captain William Bligh’s perspective the crew of The Bounty grew increasingly ill-disciplined during their five month layover on Tahiti. He wasn’t wrong. However, in seeking to re-instil the discipline required for the successful continuation of the ship’s voyage, Bligh was fixated on doling out harsh punishments, criticism and abuse and, as history informs us, targeting in particularly one crew member: Fletcher Christian.

We know what happened after that: Christian led the crew to mutiny and Bligh was cast drift on the open ocean. He somehow survived, whilst most of the mutineers either perished in Polynesia or were later brought back to the UK and court martialled – three were hanged. A pretty unhappy ending all round. Could it have been avoided?

It’s the boss’s responsibility to adopt the right approach

It might be argued that the accepted norms of behaviour in the late eighteenth century and the absolute need to keep a ship’s crew in order mitigate in Bligh’s defence.

However, at the root of the catastrophe that ensued there was, without doubt, a communication breakdown and, as the leader of the expedition, it essentially did fall to Bligh to find a positive resolution. He didn’t, largely because he adopted the wrong approach from the outset. Admittedly, it’s unlikely he was familiar with Transactional Analysis and that’s a shame because, if he had been it may well have assisted him, reunited his crew behind him and spared him many days and nights cast adrift on the open ocean.

Rough Seas for a Parent and Child

When, as children, we misbehave or break the rules, overwhelmingly the learning we tend to get from our parents is one of a need to control. Typically we are taught to do as we are told and are expected to obey that instruction.  Our response during childhood might well be capitulation, but whether accepting our parent’s instructions or not, we may also exhibit frustration, temper tantrums, indignation and as a result even engage in further bad behaviour. In those circumstances, the tougher the parent gets the more rebellious we may become. A classic vicious circle.

In later life, in the office or work space, from time to time, there will be the odd ‘heavy swell’. Occasionally, it might be unavoidable that, as the boss and in something that may feel like a parental role, you have to batten down the hatches and make tough and unpopular decisions. However if you take the time to understand and recognise the prevailing winds, or mind sets – both yours and others - and, where appropriate, change tack to chart a smoother course through the tempest, you will most probably achieve a greater meeting of minds. Your colleagues after all, are not children.

However, one of the tenets of Transactional Analysis is that, particularly in a work environment , if faced with a parental like stance from a manager, staff may well revert to a childlike response;  much more likely to manifest itself in opposition and frustration than it is to meekly accept the discipline being doled out. Employees who feel picked on may adopt the viewpoint of a latter day Fletcher Christians and move quickly to mutinous thoughts. Unaware managers may respond to that childlike behaviour by adopting even sterner parental positions, thereby condemming both parties to increasingly exaggerated and reactive stances.

If this isn’t addressed, if the dichotomy of that relationship cannot be improved, woe betides the workplace Captain and his or her crew.

The Grown Up Solution

Transactional Analysis, as the name implies, recommends an approach by managers that will enable them to derive a response from staff, whether individually or collectively, that is much more likely to broker a successful transaction – to achieve a meeting of minds, or at least an harmonious conclusion to any dispute, enabling everyone to move things forward productively, without any festering sense of injury.

In times of dispute or confrontation, harsh words, direct criticism and a dictatorial stance are unlikely to yield positive results when you are dealing with another adult. What you both need to exhibit are adult behaviours. Largely, the responsibility does lie with the boss to set out on the right foot with an adult agenda. What does that mean in practice?

It might not be easy, but if the boss can approach a difficult situation clearly demonstrating a willingness to see things from the staff member’s point of view, to listen to what they have to say and to take account of this when arriving at a decision, even if the outcome remains perhaps unwelcome, it’s far more likely that a grown up, or adult response will ensue and that the boss’s decision will be respected and acted on.

Don’t be left all at sea

Consistency is important too. Learning the lessons of Transactional Analysis isn’t necessarily an overnight task. However, if you persist with a parental, controlling stance or indeed, turning it on its head, if you are childlike in your management style and thereby encourage staff to respond by a assuming parental control themselves, you may all find yourselves very much all at sea.

It can be a long way back to dry land from there. It took Bligh a whole year to get back to England and he then sought revenge on the mutineers, who were eventually punished  or unable to cope in an environment where they were leaderless and which they didn’t really properly comprehend.

Yes, the time and the circumstances were very different but the behaviours, responses and results offer us a salient lesson in just how damaging failing to communicate effectively with your office crew could be.

Blog 5     "Mr Spock – you have the con"    - June 2016

Practical advice following promotion to team leader 

Many readers will quickly identify this  quote from the TV show and film series, Star Trek, oft heard when the Captain – Jim Kirk – is planning to beam down to an alien planet with an away team and needs to leave the Enterprise in responsible hands. Let’s face it, he couldn’t give the job to Chekhov or Sulu now could he…..far too unpredictable and often overly excited by the prospect of warp speed. No, a steady hand on the tiller was what was needed and its commonplace in a business environment for senior managers to promote those that they consider as steady, assured and reliable to lead teams in the workplace.

Equally, it is often the case that strong performing teams produce suitable candidates for promotion to Team Leader or Co-ordinator. Finding yourself elevated to a position of leadership from within the ranks can be difficult to deal with and practical advice on how to cope is thin on the ground.

 I’ve chosen the analogy with Star Trek, not just to provide an introduction to a wider look at this topic, but because in Spock we can identify some of the key characteristics that possibly would assist anyone promoted to take charge of a team when they are more used to being “ one of the gang”.

Before we delve deeper in to this, for those who may not be aware, research online indicates that “you have the con” means “control”. Although Kirk would also sometimes say “You have the Bridge”, the former is more helpful in the context of this article. When you are given control, how do you best manage the transition from team player to team leader?

How does Spock do it? Well, logically of course and without any emotion and absolutely no favouritism. He quickly establishes that he is the decision maker but at the same time he continues to very evidently rely on the expertise of other members of the crew when considering options that require their particular knowledge or input. Put simply: he leads but does not dictate. He is open to others views but accepts the responsibility for decision making – a duality of approach that is a cornerstone of good team management.

It’s also apparent that, perhaps with some artistic licence given that this is a TV drama (I know- that may shock some readers, but really- it is only that) no one ever questions Spock’s elevation to leader. In the reality of organisational teams, let’s face it – that’s unlikely. So how do you deal effectively with the prospect of resentment or disquiet among the team; uncertainty of how things will go from now on. Logically, to pursue the theme, these concerns need to be dealt with quickly, but calmly.

  • Take the time to talk to the team and find out what they think of both your change in role and the future challenges for the team.
  • Meet up with people one to one if it’s believed that would help, but be careful to ensure that in that scenario, no one gets left out.
  • Don’t hold a set piece briefing session to introduce yourself or unveil your ‘grand vision’.  This will come across as egotistical and can leave former colleagues feeling that you have suddenly become more important.  Your new role is different, not more important; never forget that.
  • Be open-minded and, like Spock, seek to show every person that you value their input and won’t be making autonomous executive decisions – at least, certainly not in the early days in your new role.
  • Be completely scrupulous in your dealings with everyone and never have favourites. If you do have a strong personal relationship with a team member outside of work, don’t let that infect your management style. This may involve a frank, if private, conversation with that person, something which may be awkward at the time but it will prevent more damaging tension in the team in the future.
  • Let people know what you think the priorities are – and get any hidden agendas  on the table and openly debated.
  • If there are non- negotiable instructions that you have been given by senior managers and asked to implement, make sure the team know where those instructions have come from. Team leadership is typically a middle management role and you will often be expected to execute orders from the top. Be sure the team understand that, but welcome their questioning things and show that you can operate in the middle – referring good ideas or feedback up the ladder when appropriate.
  • It’s also worth admitting to any feeling of vulnerability in your new role. Your colleagues are far more likely to react to the change in your position in a positive and supportive way if they understand you feel challenged and unsure at times. Masking your uncertainty with bravado is often a recipe for disaster as it can easily, if unintentionally, offend. The words: “I’m not sure about this, can you help me” are valuable and a highly constructive way of bridging any perceived gap that your new role may potentially create with other team members.
  • Lastly, remember that you are still a part of a team. Spock is always and inevitably going to go back to his second in command role before too long and, whilst hopefully your promotion is fixed and for the long term, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally put yourself back in the position you previously held and look at things from that perspective. It will keep you level headed and, although the opportunity to introduce a more dynamic brand of leadership shouldn’t be overlooked and may be very worthwhile as you develop your skills and settle in to the role, steering the ship steadily and taking a balanced view of things is perhaps one of the qualities that got you the leader’s job in the first place.

Be honest with yourself and with all of your team. Take the con, but don’t try to pull a fast one. You’ll get to warp speed sooner and more safely with everyone on board and on side.


Blog 4     How about a Change of Scene?     -   May 2016

How the world of the theatre can help organisations manage change better

Today I examine the parallels that may be drawn between the theatre of work and the actors’ stage and, in particular, how preparing for a stage play may offer us lessons to help improve the management of change.

Usually, when a new play is to be staged, the process of getting the thing in to production begins with a read-through of the script; an event at which, in most cases, everyone involved with the play will be present. Note: Everyone’s input is sought right from the start.

Admittedly, in the world of work, each time management look to change a process or introduce a new way of going about things, some basic parameters and non-negotiables probably need to be agreed by the senior management team first and then everyone affected can be brought around the table. The earlier the better, preferably.

In the theatre, a group working together to mould and adapt a script - discussing various staging ideas, delivery of the action, use of props and so on - creates an organic process, one that can result in many different interpretations of the playwright’s words. Despite this apparent looseness, the parties remain focused on the shared objective of delivering a first rate performance that will be both value for money and artistically satisfying for an audience. In other words the success criteria are non negotiable but the ways to achieve that success are in the hands of the experts – the people on stage.

So why do we consider that change in organisations needs a different, often top down, approach whereby managers do the thinking and staff do the doing? Its because there are a number of unspoken, unchallenged, but extremely powerful assumptions at work -

  • increased performance comes from increased control
  • quality comes from standardisation and routinisation
  • speed is of the essence so its quicker to tell than to discuss
  • change comes from the top, where wisdom resides!

These assumptions can stifle a potentially positive and creative contribution from the workforce – in exactly the same way that applying those principles in the theatre would most likely result in a lack-lustre performance from the cast and plays we are familiar with being staged, over and over, in un-inspired settings and with little to recommend them to an audience. Sometimes, of course, that does happen and such productions are, unsurprisingly, panned by the critics. Interestingly it is the actors that take much of the flak when it may have been those above them who were truly responsible.

Too much control – too many imposed ideas coming from the top, however well intentioned - will reduce the quality of outcomes. They may also cause such distraction or require so much time to implement, that workers or actors lose both the ability and the will to influence proceedings and/or introduce fresh, helpful and insightful ideas, despite those ideas being borne out of their considerable experience on the ground.

This top town control (often received as interference by those affected) can lead to unforeseen, but disastrous consequences as was identified in Professor Eileen Munro’s review of arrangements for Child Protection services in the UK in 2011. She identified the unintended consequences of excessive control, where staff on the front-line were having to deal with so many procedural systems of measurement that, although they probably had the know-how, they lost the ability to do a good job for those who were most vulnerable.

Of course quality matters and of course measurement of that quality is equally important. Regardless of the size and business sector of an organisation there is the need for clear accountability, either to shareholders or the general public. But why does quality have to be defined by the top? Just as actors are often their own harshest critics, most staff can be relied upon to develop performance criteria and hold themselves to account, as long as such ‘ownership’ is genuinely encouraged and then rewarded. If the players have no stake in how they are measured then we can’t expect them to have any commitment to the chosen criteria, the process or the outcome.

One other interesting parallel. In long runs of a play individual roles and even whole ensembles are changed, often bringing to the production subtle and nuanced variations along with quite distinct step-changes. It usually works though because the template remains consistent but the cast and supporting staff remain open minded and adaptable whilst simultaneously focused on results. Most good actors also look to learn from their predecessors, identifying what worked and what didn’t, rather than simply replace them and do their own thing. In contrast, organisations often seek to complete the change cycle by permanently embedding the new ways of working, a process that can, perversely, make it more difficult to review and make further changes down the line. Management writer Kurt Lewin suggested that the change process involves a three stage process - unfreezing, moving and then refreezing. Superficially that makes sense but my worry is that ‘deep frozen’ systems and processes take a lot of unfreezing - time and effort that could be better used for constant improvement. If those processes and systems were ‘chilled’ rather than frozen they would be easier to revisit and unpick!

So, in re-thinking how change is implemented in a work environment there are positive lessons to be learned from this comparison with the theatrical world.

Some direction is necessary, particularly at the onset of things, but encouraging employees to contribute, early, is certain to be a huge improvement on either their being told what to do over and over and/or being given so many administrative rules to follow that the performance itself is diminished and outcomes are poor.

If actors or directors get it wrong the play closes, reputations are damaged and audiences seek better quality elsewhere. If organisations get change wrong (and according to an IBM survey in 2008, this happens in around 60% of cases) there may be a significant loss of custom and trust. However the real victims are the staff who have to suffer top down change after top down change. Some will leave and take their talents with them; others may have no choice but to stay and make the best of it. It’s difficult to decide which is the poorer outcome!

Having made the case for a different approach to managing change my next blog (due at the end of June will look at some of the practical steps managers cantake to manage change better.

Blog 3        Is it time for a Renaissance in your team?   - April 2016

How do things work at work?

Are you part of a team; that group entity being the result of someone in authority deciding to throw a randomly selected bunch of people together and assigning you all a “project” to work on?

Does the team have a leader who brings the unit together in a cohesive and productive fashion, or who doesn’t? Are you perhaps that leader, struggling with multiple demands on your time?

Are you all working toward the same goal in a fashion that pro-actively utilises your best skills and with a shared, clear vision of what the end result should be? Are you all happy to be part of this team?

Yes? No?

If not, it might be time to re-evaluate the way the team works, but not, as you might initially expect, by simply appointing a new leader or tweaking the roles a little bit. No, what you might need is a major overhaul; a change that totally redirects the whole team and establishes shared goals to which you can all subscribe, with a clear understanding of what the end result should be - in short, a renaissance.

Does that sound good? If so, allow me to introduce an example of how thinking and working that way can produce spectacular results.

Italian Sculptor Michelangelo was working during the period we now call The Renaissance; a word that may be defined as meaning: a period of great cultural change and achievement, words that, importantly, are all required for true progress, at work as in art.

Between 1502 and 1504 he carved the Statue of David, a replica of which now stands outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. (The original is housed in the Accademia Gallery, also in Florence). It’s worth reflecting for a moment on Michelangelo’s own comments about this work – a figure that he carved from a single block of stone. When asked how he’d done it he replied “I just chipped away the bits that didn’t look like David”. Rather than hacking away with a vague idea of what he wanted and hoping to get nearer to defining that as he progressed, his vision of the end result was his starting point. He then took away any parts of the stone block that didn’t contribute to the realisation of that vision and carefully moulded and shaped other parts that he perceived had value.

It sounds good, but perhaps you’re wondering how to apply Michelangelo's approach to your team. Three questions will give you a simple way forward - 

  • Start by asking team members: How would it look and feel if, in six months’ time, this team was working well towards clearly defined goals?

Responses will be mixed: some will be emotional, others more practical and business-like, but all, pretty much inevitably, will be positive. Your goal should also become clearer and, once everyone in the team recognises the possibility of success and is sharing in that feel-good vibe – once the block of work, if you will, is on the team’s plinth, it’s almost time to start, or perhaps re-start the sculpting.

  • Then ask: How close or far away are we from getting it right?

The answers will not only reveal those bits and pieces of thought or process that are in the way and need to be discarded but, much more importantly, will also stimulate contributions and ideas that will move the project forward and that therefore need to be encouraged and developed. You want to chip away what’s not needed and shape the good stuff to best advantage.

  • Finally, ask: Starting now, who needs to do what to move us closer to our vision?

You start right away. No one is working to earn individual praise or to best their colleagues – all are working in unison, motivated by a shared desire to reach the goal – to reveal a perfectly finished piece of work.

If you have a chance to go to Florence have a look at David, notice how exquisite the carving is and ponder the ideas described above. Michelangelo’s work has been heralded down the centuries as a wonderful achievement. If things aren’t going well in your team, his brand of renaissance thinking should help turn things around.

You might not achieve quite the fame of Michelangelo but, in your workplace and perhaps for a good long time, your achievements – and the way you went about the job to hand, may be almost equally celebrated.

Blog  2 - Getting on My Wavelength - March 2016

Ever been on a Blind Date?

All that effort online finally pays off; you dress up smart, brush your teeth an extra once or twice before you leave the house, practise what you might say – over and over and turn up to the agreed rendezvous on time and feeling pretty confident.

Everything goes well, or so it seems, but then, having failed to return a few of your calls, the other party e-mails you, apologises for the delay in communication; says they enjoyed meeting you, but on reflection has decided against taking things any further.

What happened? It all seemed to go so well. It’s a huge let down and you can find no credible explanation for it.

What if this wasn’t a date?

Has the same or a similar thing ever happened after a business meeting or after a chat over a coffee with a prospective client? You felt your pitch went well, you said all you needed to say and they appeared to get you and want to do business. But nothing happened.

What could have gone wrong?

Heading up a blind alley

In business, when we meet people that we desire to impress or convince of something, most of us conclude quite readily that if we get our part in the conversation right and the other person doesn’t throw their toys out the pram or openly reject our proposals and suggestions, then things have gone well.

Quite possibly; as long as the other party is wholly on our wavelength: sees things the way we do, assimilates information the way we do and acts on it the way we would expect to.

However, if the person you are pitching to isn’t like you, then potentially hugely significant barriers may be going up, unseen, all around.

Even if your proposal is a good one: the way you deliver it and, even more importantly, the amount of attention you pay, or don’t pay, to the other person’s responses could indicate to them that the two of you are absolutely not on the same wavelength and that you do not appear to be getting them at all.

The conversation may seem to have gone well, but no real communication has taken place. This is sometimes why business deals fail to come to fruition.


Avoiding the blind spot

Failing to accept that there are other ways of seeing things is at the route of the problem

Have you ever been asked to “find”, let’s say – a horse, in a drawing that at first sight looks more like a fish and a frog.

If you can only see the fish and the frog –and decide that’s what the picture is – because that’s how you see it, you’ll never identify the horse.

Different ways of looking at and dealing with life and work, provoke varying behaviours which, when clashing, can undermine a genuine opportunity for collaboration at an early stage. What’s required is that we amend our own conduct to better accommodate and then better respond to the character orientation, thought processes and decision making and lifestyle choices that may govern another person’s thinking.

The good news is, once you buy into this, it’s actually not that difficult to adapt.

Before a meeting, if you can, do some background research. In the meeting, observe the other person’s attitude and the way they respond to the conversation. Be prepared to ask what they’re expecting, how they’d like to proceed and whether there are any obstacles they perceive might prevent the discussion moving forward.

If you do all that the person opposite will pick up on how understanding you’re being and, generally, people respond well to those they sense are open-minded and adaptable. Critically though you must also listen to what is said to you.…

“…genuinely hearing what the other person says and both demonstrating an understanding of their words and showing respect for their opinion”

Next time you’re pitching for business over coffee, give it a go. It could well be an eye-opener.


Blog 1 - Invaluable Business Management Skills – Some Lessons from Shakespeare in Calais - February 2016


Placing more trust in the workforce – is that such an alien idea?

Downtrodden, depressed, anxious and untrusted employees don’t usually perform well.

The business they work for suffers and its profitability and competitiveness declines. That’s not good is it? Yet all too often managers, who may fear reprisals if things go wrong, feel unable to trust the workforce: when time is tight and there is pressure from above it is perhaps easier to revert to “tell and yell”.

Fortunately, there is another way. It starts when you make the choice to perceive things differently and to empower employees to take responsibility for their own performance. This may come as a surprise, but there is more than one school of thought on business management skills that argues that this is the way to build a more successful business.

Perpetuating Fear & Uncertainty

There have been many surveys that have concluded that when human beings feel valued and, coupled with that, are given an opportunity to take responsibility for themselves and their work, no matter what the situation, the vast majority rise to the challenge in a positive and productive fashion.

For some long while now so called “Refugee Camps”, in and around Calais in France, have been in the news. Whatever anyone’s opinion of the reasons these camps exist, or of the motivations of those who live there, there can be little doubt that having to live there, day in and day out, is not conducive to forging an upbeat, go-getting or particularly socially responsible attitude. The media often depicts the camp’s inhabitants as downtrodden, depressed and anxious. In so doing, they ferment a general view that people there cannot be trusted and must be, in one way or another, managed or, to put it more precisely, controlled. If true for some, it won’t be for most.

This closely parallels the situation in many offices around the UK, where managers fear that their employees’ collective default character is that of a bunch of work-shy ne’er-do-wells who, because of the risk of sloth or trickery, must be controlled; must be kept on a tight leash. Bizarrely, having that fear can serve to create a self fulfilling prophesy whereby staff appear to behave in ways that reinforce that stereotype, thereby seeming to justify the manager’s initial suspicions

This is ultimately self-defeating as it is horribly debilitating and, as is only all too obvious when Calais camp residents are interviewed, only serves to perpetuate a vicious circle of fear and uncertainty. This is felt both individually and collectively.

 Offering Understanding and Opportunity

In early February a group of actors from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre gave a performance of Hamlet to around three hundred people at a camp in Calais known as “The Jungle”. This was part of a wider enterprise called the Good Chance Project, one of the founders of which commented:

“Hamlet is the story of a young man who is depressed and frustrated, between life and death, who does not know what to do, who is struggling to make decisions. That story is going to translate to thousands of people here who are in exactly the same position”

Office employees may not be between life and death exactly, but the rest of the quote resonates very well with the predicament of many.

The performers in Calais, stepping away from the Media-led characterisation of their audience, understood the latter’s wider malaise, addressed it pro-actively.  Perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not, they provided a window of opportunity for us all to see, from their appreciative reaction, a responsible, cohesive and positive approach from several hundred camp residents. Imagine what might be achieved if they were offered even more pro-active encouragement.

 Applying the message in the lesson

What happened in Calais was a small step in the right direction and, whilst the parallels drawn with management practice in the workplace might not extend very much further, the message is hopefully clear.

We should make fewer assumptions about the need to keep employees in their place and instead release managers from the burden of feeling they must always exert a controlling influence on their staff.

If employees see that they are valued and are given greater responsibility, misconceptions about how they would behave and what might be achieved, will quickly disappear. A workforce that feels empowered to control its own workplace will most usually work for the benefit and advancement of the business.

After all, isn’t that how you would like to be managed?


Andrew Scowcroft has run his own management training consultancy since 2001 and specialises in practical skills training, coaching and writings that improve the practice of management in the UK and beyond.  This is one of a regular series of blogs on management issues designed to get managers thinking differently about their role and the people around them.