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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!

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