Skip to content

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?

%d bloggers like this: