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Do you have the courage to follow?

12 Apr 2011

The power of following

We live in a time where everyone is encouraged to lead, there are a million books, blogs, articles, podcasts and so on.  I doubt there is a single book on the significance and value of following and particularly being the first to follow. Being a leader takes guts at times, standing out on your own isn’t easy and trying to encourage others to come along with you can be a challenge.  But when those around you think that the guy trying to take a lead is maybe a sandwich short of a picnic it takes even more courage.  The leader knows what he is about, why he is taking a lead, the follower takes a leap of faith, they may be castigated and outcast for following a deranged loon, or maybe they are the one that makes a real difference.  This video puts it perfectly and demonstrates just how quickly a deranged loon can become a leader then be swept along by the power of their own success.

There is a story about monkeys in the 1950’s where the animals were having dietary problems as a result of eating dirty sweet potatoes.  One monkey decides to wash the sweet potato and avoid chewing the grit and dirt that normally accompanies the freshly dug up potato.   The monkey that dared to be different was cast out by the group.  But, a few years later, this practice had become the norm for the whole group.  It just took one monkey to think that the leader wasn’t doing something stupid to make a difference and pull the rest along towards a better way of doing things.

Improving processes in the work place is often the same.  How many times have you heard ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ or ‘this is how we do things around here’?  Unless you are working with some kind of structured improvement that de-risks the act of following a new path it takes just one person to recognize a better way of doing something and a critical first follower to validate the new approach.  People feel safe in groups, especially those that don’t want to lead themselves, and fun though leadership can be, it isn’t for everyone.

So, do you have the courage to lead and do something different?  How about the courage to be a first follower and validate the efforts of those who have taken the first step?

What if?

02 Mar 2011

The Long View

The power of planning and scenario planning for possible future events is well known and yet plenty of organisations still fail to plan.  A Guardian  newspaper article published this week about the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London exposed a woeful lack of foresight on the part of the emergency services in the city and highlights how easily things can get out of control when the situation is extremely demanding.

Okay so terrorist attacks throw a massive set of problems at the services in a very short space of time and create levels of stress and fear that are not the same as dealing with other emergencies.  So under such circumstances proper forethought and planning is even more vital and its absence is really unforgiveable.  When people die from a lack of planning on the part of emergency services then there is a real problem that needs to be solved.

I am not against the emergency services here, I have served in the military and know exactly how hard some of these situations can be to deal with but I also have an expectation for how they will be handled.  As someone who was in London on that day and knew people who were way too close for comfort to the bus bomb I got a first hand impression of things, and the overriding sense was not the calm controlled response you might hope for in such a situation.

If you look at the foreseeable mistakes that were made it is fairly depressing

Emergency communications by SMS

Oddly enough the mobile phone network went into overdrive and messages did not get through.  SMS doesn’t work in the underground where 3 of the 4 bombs were planted.

The response – revert to using pagers – please correct me if I am wrong but I thought these relied on the very same overloaded network and still don’t work underground.

Command posts not functioning

The backup command post was never brought online and the telephone number issued to attendees was incorrect leaving them out of communication for the entire event.

Misdirected resources

Because panic set in there were reports of bombs all over the place which created difficulties, however, ambulances were sent to Tavistock Square an hour after the area was given the all clear.

7/7 Bus

There is a massive difference between rehearsing disaster scenarios and dealing with the real thing.  No rehearsal can prepare people for the shock of seeing the dead and maimed at such an event which makes it all the more important that everything else functions exactly as it should.  Processes have to be checked and double checked and planning assumptions must be understood and thought through.

There are plenty of things that can be done to avoid some of the issues that arose on that July day in London.  The appropriate techniques are no less relevant to organisations preparing for potential disaster scenarios on their business.  Taking the time to think things through and prepare scenario plans for possible situations is an insurance policy against events that hopefully never happen.  When the twin towers in New York were brought down the previously sensible plan of backing up computer systems between the towers suddenly seemed terribly short-sighted.  While the concern for saving lives was quite correctly the main consideration at the time things still have to be put back together afterwards.   Building processes and systems to cope with potential scenarios is key to coming through a real situation with minimal impact.  Sometimes it will be difficult, sometimes it might lead to changes in approach or increases in cost to operate but the cost may be worth it in the long run the same as any insurance policy.

Anything less is planning to fail.

You can read the full text of the Guardian article HERE.  For advice on scenario planning or process evaluation contact us at

Creating Service 2.0

24 Feb 2011

The changes facing the IT Department

Jumping for joy

How do you take something like an IT service that has become commoditised at best and at worst regarded as an unwanted but necessary evil and make it into something special? In a world dominated by service level agreements, standards and prescriptive methodologies for how things get done how do you make something truly excellent that delights the customer?

Good companies find all sorts of ways and means to capture the imagination of their current or prospective customers and attract them to the products and services they sell.  Creativity is at a premium and can make the difference between success and mediocrity but what if you aren’t trying to capture new customers?  What if the customer you want to give great service to is your own wider organisation?  Then things are different…or are they?

Do you know how the customer perceives your services?  Who will the customer be comparing you to?  Other services within the organisation or perhaps other services in organisations they have worked for before or are familiar with?  There may be no competition for an internal service, maybe they can’t just up and leave to buy from somewhere else but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like to do just that.  If they aren’t satisfied then maybe they will campaign for change with the powers that be.  Maybe your comfortable existence is under threat.  So how do you create raving fans within your own organisation?

Maybe this seems obvious, but if it is so obvious why is it so easy to find stories of people who hate their IT service and the department that provides it? The first clip below may not be the reality of most IT Departments but it is probably the perception of a hell of a lot of their customers.

By the way, RTFM is an IT support acronym for Read The F**king Manual.

So, assuming that the department is not like the IT Crowd and that your customer knows a lot more than how to switch a PC on – if you want to be regarded in a totally different light how do you go about changing perceptions?

First of all you have to care and show that you care.  It is important to understand the wants needs and expectations of the customers that depend on your service.  IT Departments no longer support the kind of equipment that you need a second mortgage to buy and customers with more computing power at home than they have at work are commonplace.  Managing their expectations when the organisation may not be able to afford to ride the upgrade merry-go-round is a much tougher task than it used to be.  Managing expectations is something that you can only do when you know what those expectations actually are.

So do you know what is really expected by the customer you serve? Or do you work from what you think they need or are prepared to let them have?  Sadly, many IT Departments operate on a “we know best” basis that allows little room even to discuss possibilities.  Sure, you have to balance things out against what the organisation can actually afford but most customers can understand an economic argument when it is sensibly presented.

If you have taken the time and trouble to ask your customer their expectations can be remarkably straightforward for business IT these days.  Customers want hardware that works how it is supposed to, systems that are available when they are needed and applications that are easy to use and function logically in carrying out work processes.

Establishing cost effective systems that can deliver business processes effectively drives what the customer receives more often than not.  Building IT systems that are a complete fit to an entirely unique approach is rarely cost effective these days and off-the-shelf or from the cloud is an increasingly common strategy for businesses of all sizes.  But this means that business changes have to be made to work with a more generic process approach.

You can put components of the service out to other providers, and outsource aspects or the entire service but as with off-the -shelf or out of the cloud that creates a new set of challenges, service is still your responsibility but not necessarily with the same control.  The next clip is an experience I can relate to having been supported by internal colleagues in Belgium who whilst being very good were not the easiest people to understand at times.

The IT Department is no longer a bunch of techies knocking up systems that exactly match unique processes, not unless you have an unlimited budget and a blatant disregard for wastefulness.   The IT Department is increasingly becoming a go-between between the real service provider and the customer and that requires some changes in approach and a whole lot more emphasis on how the customer is regarded.  The IT Department has to become expert in managing relationships both internal and external, supporting business change, communicating in understandable terms, translating obscure processes into more generic versions, negotiating and the list goes on.  While there may still be a need for the odd internal techie around their days are pretty much numbered in all but the largest organisations.  Service 2.0 will depend on high levels of emotional intelligence, something that most IT Departments don’t have a reputation for at present.

This may seem obvious – you may work in just such a department – but my guess is that if you do, you are in a relatively small minority when you consider this in the widest context.  I would bet there are more people who can relate to the IT crowd than to the image of a 21st Century provider that understands their internal customer’s expectations and works tirelessly to secure them an outstanding service.

I hate bad meetings!

08 Feb 2011

Empty Meeting

Okay, so I am in a ranty mood.  Having just sat through a local government consultation meeting that was disappointingly sterile I was pondering why I was feeling quite so frustrated.  What I concluded was that I HATE bad meetings.  To be fair, the organisers today had a short period of time and a lot of attendees in a less than ideal, borrowed, location. However, consultation should mean listening, engaging, dialogue and real discussion not just impenetrable presentations and questions an answers in an environment that can feel very them and us.  Consultation requires something a little different, often there is information to impart, opinions to be sought, views to be shared and discussions to be had.  A creation of shared understanding and meaning that extends everyone’s knowledge and meets people’s real needs. Create an appropriate environment, taking the time to prepare materials properly with accessible presentations that impart information effectively and a structure to the discussion that involves everyone in a far less intimidating environment.  Is that too much to ask?  What experiences have you had?

Commercial breakdown . . . ?

04 Feb 2011

A burning platform…


Making a significant change to the structure of an organisation or to its direction is never easy, it requires a lot of thought, planning and excellent communication. A sound change management approach and considerable effort to secure buy-in from those involved as participants or stakeholders is essential to a smooth transition. However, even with all these things there is no guarantee of success. So what if you are a civil servant in a no longer wanted or supported component of the government machine? How do people used to operating under the protective umbrella of government service cope with the change? How do you generate strong enough leadership, courage and vision to ensure a successful change to a new order?

The UK Government’s much trailed and reported ‘bonfire of the Quangos’ is now underway, despite reports that it was a “missed opportunity” (Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) – Fifth Report: ‘Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State’).

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the decisions made, thoughts should now be turning to managing the transition to the new arrangements. Many Quangos – or NDPBs (Non-Departmental Public Bodies) are being abolished altogether, some are merging, others are being encouraged to become charities, self-funding entities or ‘mutuals’.

All face a huge change management challenge. Even where entities are being abolished, in almost all cases at least some of the functions are being moved elsewhere – often to the ‘parent’ Department. Clearly that will involve change – as functions and more importantly people move from one organisation to another.

But what about those that are continuing either as a trading fund or charity? Or indeed those services that might be ‘mutualised’? Surely that’s a much simpler process, isn’t it? I’m not so sure. Here are just some of the challenges such organisations are likely to face:
• How do you place a value on a good or service that has up until now been provided ‘free’?
• How do you persuade your ‘customers’ that they should now pay for what once was a publicly provided good or service?
• Are you allowed to create a surplus (I hesitate to use the word ‘profit’ as that is seen as a dirty word in some circles) that can be reinvested into the business? And if so – how much surplus is reasonable?
• For any services that face competition from other providers (and Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, has indicated that means most if not all mutuals), how do you change mind-sets so that people place a value on their’s and others’ time? For example, to ensure that the cost of sale in any competition (likely to be primarily the cost of the bid team) does not exceed any prospective profit.

Perhaps the overall question is – what is your strategy and vision for a new organisation that might retain the best of the public sector ethos whilst running a business on commercial lines?

None of these issues is trivial; they demand concerted effort to set direction and then manage and implement the change. Sadly, the ability of civil servants to think and act strategically has been severely eroded over the last couple of decades (see the two reports from the PASC: “Who does UK National Strategy” – 18th October 2010 and the follow-up, published 28th January 2011 – see HERE for both reports). Unfortunately, the latter suggests there is an obstructive complacency at the heart of government when it comes to strategy and strategic thinking.

My fear is that, without sufficient thought and effort on the challenges of changing status of these organisations, we will see the further erosion of public goods in the UK as newly established mutuals, trading funds and charities fail.

Making changes on this scale is no simple task. Many private sector bodies have tried and failed to achieve similar transitions particularly in the case of de-mergers from a protective corporate parent. If the private sector finds this hard, where leaders are used to different demands and expectations you can be certain that civil servants will find this extremely challenging, particularly since their personal comfort zones and security blankets have been ripped away from them.

Transition to new structures and environments is possible, but it isn’t easy and requires a great deal of thought to make sure that every t is identified and crossed and every i identified and dotted. There is no margin for error. Taking the time to think, be creative, and build mission, vision and strategy for the new organisation is an essential first step. If you would like help thinking through the myriad issues involved in making changes of this nature, why not contact us at

Why Alice was wrong!

31 Jan 2011

Looking forward

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.  ‘I don’t much care where –‘ said Alice.  ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.  ‘–so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It never ceases to surprise me how many organisations exist without any clear or guiding vision and strategy to achieve it.  It is also not entirely unusual to come across organisations that recognise a need to change and go to the extent of outlining a strategy to take them somewhere whether that is in line with a vision or not just so that they appear to be doing something and in control of their destiny.  Without appropriate thought though they run the risk of being no better off than Alice, heading somewhere other than here.  This is rarely going to work as an effective strategy though and it is a brave (pick your own adjective) leader that will select this to go forward.  More likely it is the strategy of the indecisive – ‘let’s just see what happens.’  Unless where you are is a really bad place to be and absolutely anything is better this issue deserves more care and attention!
Whenever there is change afoot checking the change for alignment with the organisation’s vision is essential. Inconsistencies will be picked up on by staff and can lead to real problems through poor understanding and inevitably inadequate communications.  Forming a worthwhile strategy for an unclear vision is nigh on impossible.  I was intrigued by a challenge I came across a while ago to write a mission statement in 8 words and the I think that the same challenge can be extended to writing an unambiguous vision statement that gives clear direction.  Some great companies have some awfully badly expressed visions, little better than Alice’s – Just get me somewhere…some are better but most could do with a tweak to make them crisper, here are some examples, saving the best ones for the end…15 words seems like a reasonable goal what do you think?

Coca Cola

To achieve sustainable growth, we have established a vision with clear goals.

Profit: Maximizing return to shareowners while being mindful of our overall responsibilities.
People: Being a great place to work where people are inspired to be the best they can be.
Portfolio: Bringing to the world a portfolio of beverage brands that anticipate and satisfy peoples; desires and needs.
Partners: Nurturing a winning network of partners and building mutual loyalty.
Planet: Being a responsible global citizen that makes a difference.

Southwest Airlines (56 words)

Our vision is to expand our locations both domestic and overseas by being the largest and most profitable airline company to achieve both short and long-haul carriers efficiently and with low cost. Also to be an airline carrier that has the most productive workforce to guarantee the best flight possible for each and every passenger.

Budweiser (26 words, lots better as 1st 14)

“Through all of our products, services and relationships, we will add to life’s enjoyment.

Enrich and entertain a global audience

Deliver superior returns to our shareholders”

Heinz  (13 words)


Amazon (29 words – maybe better without 1st 10)

“Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

Nike (11 words excluding note)

“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete*
in the world”

* If you have a body, you are an athlete.

Elephant or Cheetah?

25 Jan 2011

ElephantIf your organisation is the kind that brings to mind an image of an elephant rather than a cheetah setting a strategy that says we will become more agile and move with the pace of the market can be rather challenging to say the least. It is easy to say I want to be a cheetah, it isn’t quite so easy to change if you are rather large and cumbersome.  For large organisations and perhaps for organisations with large organisational processes setting a vision to make such a significant change is highly ambitious. So what do you actually have to achieve? Well, if you want to be truly agile then one thing is for certain – you can’t spend a year on a business case and several years implementing the changes; an elephant in a spotty fur coat is still an elephant.

True agility means agile in everything including your processes for decision making. So, if your strategic intent is to adapt and change more rapidly then you need to take a good look at the implications of your vision and be serious about what you are setting out to achieve.  Changing to use speed as a source of competitive advantage or as a means to better service is demanding and will stress the organisation in places you haven’t imagined; much the same as an over enthusiastic work out will awaken sleepy muscles.  Thinking about what is required and the scope and scale of the change is vital, but don’t try it on your own, especially not if you work in an office high up in an office block with windows big enough to climb out of.  Look for the people who appreciate your concerns and bring them together, work with urgency and build a new vision that fits with your needs.

Whether the change you desire is a complete change of direction or getting better at what you do to provide better service or increased value for money or even to stay ahead of the competition then there are plenty of questions that you need to ask yourself and work through.  Get to work on them now, get help – you are going to need it.

Laurence Haughton titled his 2001 business book –

It’s not the big that eat the small it’s the fast that eat the slow…


he recognised an unstoppable trend for change in many of the world’s major organisations.  Slow just doesn’t cut it any more. There has never been a greater need to think more new things, think faster, take decisions and translate decisions into action that achieves measurable results.  If you see yourself as a bit of an elephant then what are you doing about it?

Do you see?

19 Jan 2011

All too often we look but we don’t really see. Seeing requires focus, time and attention. In a fast paced world that isn’t always so easy. But, if you don’t see, do you know just what you might be missing? How many opportunities have passed you by simply because you didn’t see them however close they were as you passed by?

It just may be that the opportunity or the innovation that you have been searching for is tantalisingly close to you you just need to reach out and take it. There are lots of things you can do to change the situation. Some that will help the individual some that are more valuable to organisations. Most require you to slow down or even stop what you are doing…not for so long that it becomes a problem, but for long enough to change your perspective, to open your eyes to new possibilities.

The video that follows is of an experiment carried out in the USA last year, just to see what would happen…what would you have done?

Letting go and moving on…

14 Jan 2011

I am a huge fan of Lost and having just watched the final series for the umpteenth time something in it set me thinking about parallels with the business world.  For those that don’t know or didn’t follow it – Lost was a multi-year epic struggle between light and dark culminating in a realisation that we all have to let go and move on sometimes, either during or at the end of our lives.

So how does this translate…well, it is all to easy to get stuck in the past, especially when the past has been great – the good old days.  I used to work for EDS, a great company that is now part of HP.  EDS was smart enough to recognize that companies run into all sorts of problems that can change their fate.  They asked Hamel and Prahalad to explain some of the issues for them; they did so as part of their great book Competing for the Future.  Essentially they said that organisations fall because of two major issues, an inability to escape the past or an inability to create the future.  Hence the parallel to Lost, when you work for a great company, in a great environment with great customers it is easy to get complacent and forget that their are hungry competitors out there trying to change things whether you like it or not.  Even the public sector can fall foul of this problem albeit not driven by competitors.

So, what can you do?  The key is never to stop thinking about it, if things are great now then just what will it take to make them even better?  Sadly, not everyone  does that, and the fate of EDS is an example of what can happen when you aren’t ahead of the game.  At IdeaSown we recognize the crucial importance of keeping the thinking fresh all the time.  The past may well be something to be proud of, to tell stories about and make sure that the lessons learned continue to be valuable; but sometimes it is time to let go and move on.

Contact us at to see how we can help.

Choosing our leaders – how can we improve?

11 Jan 2011

Leading the way

After England’s recent Ashes triumph, Kevin Pietersen has said that it was ‘good for English cricket’ that he lost the captaincy two years ago. (

which got me thinking – why do we so often get the wrong leader in place?

– are the qualities necessary to be a modern leader not well understood?
– is it more about luck – the circumstances determining which type of leader will succeed or fail rather than the leader making the best of those circumstances
– do we actually use more basic (evolutionary) traits  when faced with a difficult decision on who should lead (the noisiest, most attractive (square jawed, tallest?), the one with the quickest wit, the one we’d personally like to be more like
– and how long should we stick with a failing leader (a constant source of concern to many premiership football club owners it would seem)

we’d like to hear your thoughts – how can we increase our certainty when choosing our leaders?

Creative risk management…

30 Dec 2010

. . . sounds like a bit of an oxymoron. But it’s not – far from it.

Walk a tightropeUnfortunately, risk management seems to have become synonymous with boring reviews of interminable risk registers done at the end of meetings when everyone just wants to get finished.

But I believe that creativity has a fundamental role to play in both the identification of risks and in approaches to mitigate them. For this post, I am just going to explore the first – identification of risks.

By definition, risks are uncertain – an event that might happen and which, if it did happen, would have a negative impact on a programme, project or initiative. That means that risks are about the future – things that haven’t yet occurred. The difficulty is having a wide enough perspective to explore future possibilities. To paraphrase one of Donald Rumsfeld’s most famous sayings – to understand better the known unknowns and to minimise as far as possible the number of unknown unknowns.

That to me not only suggests creativity – it demands it. But that doesn’t mean wild flights of fancy. Here’s a real life example from my time as strategy director at HM Revenue and Customs, a large UK central government department.

In 2005, shortly after the department was formed by the merger of Inland Revenue and HM Customs and Excise, we created some future planning scenarios. These were four possible views of what the operating environment for HMRC might look like in 2020. Scenarios are a great tool for strategic thinking and we used them in a variety of ways, not least to develop HMRC’s first corporate strategy.

But we also used them for identifying strategic risks to the department. I wanted to provide a creative session – but also a ‘safe’ environment, which allowed Board members to think about future threats without feeling personally threatened. So we used a technique called ‘back-casting’. Using the four scenarios we had created, I got the Board to role play a board of enquiry being undertaken in 2020 and set up to investigate why HMRC had failed. I chaired the ‘enquiry’ taking ‘evidence’ from ‘experts’ (role-played by members of my team), who explained how HMRC had not responded to the changing operating environment and the challenges thrown up by each of the four scenarios and as a result, had failed as an organisation. Because it was exploring things that hadn’t yet happened, we were able to put in some hard-hitting ideas, including issues of shortcomings in management and leadership. Yet the session allowed Board members to have a ‘safe’ discussion about possible failure – these were future ‘events’ that could be addressed. It was also creative in that it explored different possible operating environments and trends – none of which were predictions of the future, but all of which were evidenced by indicators or drivers in the present.

The result was a rich set of strategic threats to the department. Some of these were relatively short term and were linked into the department’s top level risk register. Others were more distant or even more uncertain; that is – it was not possible to assign even a vague probability to them. Those threats were monitored by my strategy unit as part of our ‘horizon-scanning’ – looking for lead indicators that suggested the threat was becoming more likely. If the latter happened, the Board were notified and the risk managed through the existing strategic risk register.

So – the discipline of risk management and the processes required does not mean that there is no room for creativity. If you want to hear more about how we approach risk management or use scenarios, why not contact us at

Clues on leadership…

28 Dec 2010

Leadership . . . there’s a clue in the name

LeaderI know it sounds kind of obvious, but when people ask me what is the difference between leadership and management, I find myself drawn to flippant sounding answers . . . Leaders lead and Managers, well – they manage!

Too facetious? Well let’s take an example. Clearly the differences between leadership and management crop up in all sorts of different circumstances and I may well come back to others in subsequent posts. But for today, I shall return to the theme of ‘wicked’ as opposed to technical problems.

Technical problems are those for which we have the necessary know-how and procedures. Wicked problems are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. They are complex, with multiple causes, all of which interact to create the conditions that define the ‘problem’; they are emergent. That is, they are created by the conditions that give rise to them and constantly change as those conditions change.

In my view, wicked problems demand leadership; technical problems can be managed.

Why? Firstly, because it takes a real leader to admit that they don’t have all the answers – and that, by definition, is the situation with wicked problems.

Secondly it takes a al leader to communicate with people about the conditions that give rise to the problem, to encourage people inside and often outside an organisation to ‘co-own’ the problem and to foster creativity. Because emergent ‘problems’ require emergent ‘solutions’. In other words – a combined set of approaches to address the underlying conditions that give rise to the problem. And those ‘solutions’ must be capable of adapting, as those underlying conditions change.

Lastly, wicked problems demand individuals who are able to step back and look at the big picture. Perhaps that in itself is a hackneyed phrase, but in this instance it has real meaning. It involves looking at the wicked problem as a whole – all of it’s underlying conditions – and seeing how well or badly the range of mechanisms adopted to tackle those conditions are doing. Like a conductor of an orchestra, the leader needs to seek more from the wind section here, or less from the strings there, keeping the actions in step and aligned with the overall ‘score’ – the desire to address the wicked problem.

So leaders lead; they don’t necessarily ‘do’ and they don’t necessarily ‘manage’ (though they often do both of these too). They engage with the community of those affected by a wicked problem, encourage them, foster / unlock innovation and are prepared to be humble in the face of both success and failure.

To learn more about our approach to leadership development and training why not email us at

Do you use plain English?

22 Dec 2010

Management speak pervades the office, are you clear with your people?

Do you speak in clear understandable terms or are you fond of the odd cliché?  The trouble with management speak is that it leaves most people cold and disenfranchises those that don’t understand it. Communicating in clear terms is not so difficult and the negative impact of poor communication is well understood.  Having just finished watching this year’s Apprentice shows I couldn’t help but smile at some of the terms used by one of the candidates; she ultimately admitted to having her own dictionary.  It was impossible to understand what she was saying and anyone trying to ‘conversate’ with her might have found it difficult to find ‘comfortability’.  Try and catch yourself using management speak and ask yourself if there might be a better way to express yourself for the benefit of your people, plain English works wonders.

So just what is the worst example of management speak that you have come across?

Simplication…via @hughhefner

16 Dec 2010


“Crystal brought me a laptop computer & now she & Anna are showing how it works. It’s like my iPad, but more complicated.”

Lotus carColin Chapman of Lotus cars was credited with the idea of simplication, a very simple concept that Hugh Hefner (yes the Hugh Hefner) has nailed completely in his humourous twitter post.  Chapman said that the car could be as complicated as hell under the bonnet (hood, sorry Hugh) but it should be simple and clear to the driver.  Don’t complicate things for the guy who is driving fast, he has enough to worry about – simplication.

The iPad has done a fantastic job of simplicating the laptop and while I have never bought one I can’t say I am not sorely tempted.  Jobs and Apple understand what Gates and Microsoft never did, I don’t need to know how clever you are by you showing how difficult you can make your products, I want you to make my life easier by making your products easy for me to work with – simplicate them!  It is why Apple are once again laughing all the way to the bank and Microsoft are playing catch up…badly.

Great point Hef!

Wicked problems…

14 Dec 2010

require the patience of a saint…

Wicked problemsAs promised in my recent post on outcomes (“Beware banana skins”), I am returning to the theme of so-called ‘wicked’ problems.

What are ‘wicked’ problems? I think that the best definition I have seen is provided in the book “Leadership on the Line” by Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky. In that Heifetz and Linsky talk about adaptive change or adaptive problems, contrasting them with what they call technical problems. Their definitions are:

“Every day, people have problems for which they do, in fact, have the necessary know-how and procedures. We call these technical problems. But there is a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries and adjustments from numerous places in the organisation or community.”

In my view adaptive and wicked problems are synonymous. Wicked problems are therefore ones that aren’t amenable to handed-down, technical solutions. They are complex, with multiple causes, all of which interact to create the conditions that define the ‘problem’. In many ways, as I said in my earlier blog, talking about them as ‘problems’ in itself creates difficulties. When we hear the term ‘problem’, we immediately assume there is a solution (singular). Wicked ‘problems’ are much more than that; they are emergent. That is, they are created by the conditions that give rise to them and constantly change as those conditions change.

Does that mean wicked problems cannot be addressed? No. But emergent ‘problems’ require emergent ‘solutions’. In other words – a combined set of approaches to address the underlying conditions that give rise to the problem. And those ‘solutions’ must be capable of adapting, as those underlying conditions change.

What does all of that mean? Well, lets take the example of rising levels of childhood obesity, mentioned in my earlier post. There are many conditions that have given rise to this trend – the easy availability of highly calorific, fatty foods, attitudes to food, understanding and attitudes to nutrition and food preparation, commercial drivers within the food industry, etc.. There is no simple technical fix to suddenly magically reverse the trend. Instead we need to address the underlying conditions – changing attitudes and behaviours, working in collaboration with consumers, communities and the food industry. Ultimately, we need to get people to recognise that this is a shared ‘problem’ that requires ownership and involvement from us all.

That might mean individual initiatives that are relative small but, done in combination with other things, lead to an overall change. And all of those factors require much more sensitive indicators that show when things might be changing – so approaches can be adapted to capitalise on the ‘good’ effects and ameliorate the ‘bad’.

And of course – as indicated earlier, addressing such problems takes time and sustained effort . . . in other words patience!

If you want to hear more about how we approach wicked problems, why not drops us a line at

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