Category Archives: Insights

Quick musings and discoveries

Ditch the old banger – increase your chances of getting there

The road is littered with weary travelers who have lost their way. Great intentions don’t always translate into great implementations. Distractions, losing confidence, or taking on too much all contribute to people not reaching their desired destination.

A destination that is worth reaching requires a proper map. And achievement that is worth something requires DRIVE:

Here are some useful tips designed to help you prepare for your journey, & help you along the way.

  1. CHANGE GEAR: Do not abandon your journey at the first hurdle. Step into another gear.
  2. USE YOUR FOG LIGHTS: Sometimes you lose clarity (“can’t see the woods for the trees”). Refocus your efforts and remind yourself “where I started, where I was trying to get to, and why I wanted to get there”. Keep others in the picture. They can probably help.
  3. DON’T FORGET YOUR SEAT BELTS AND AIRBAGS: It might be a bumpy ride and unpredictable things will (predictably) happen along the way. Be prepared. Protect yourself, but do not allow the potential change to prevent you from completing your journey. Some risks are necessary.
  4. USE YOUR WINDSCREEN WIPERS: You need clear vision. Keep an eye on where you are heading rather than getting side-tracked by the fleck of dirt on your windscreen
  5. KEEP YOUR DISTANCE: Look at the road ahead instead of concentrating on the one car (obstacle) in front of you.
  6. OIL & WATER:Keep yourself alert and in shape. Recharge your batteries and don’t overdo it. Get in training for a demanding journey. Concentrate. Do not fall asleep at the wheel.
  7. RADIO: Ensure that the journey is entertaining. You are more likely to succeed if you enjoy it
  8. TRAVEL LIGHT: Don’t overburden yourself. Take only what you need and leave the rest behind. Know what is truly important and keep reminding yourself of this.
  9. HANDS FREE & CUP HOLDERS: Make the journey as comfortable as possible and as difficult as necessary. If it is too easy, you lose concentration and end up in a ditch. If it is too difficult it will only frustrate and tire you. Do not expose yourself to unnecessary danger when it is possible to anticipate problems and take steps in advance to avoid them
  10. MOTORWAY RECOVERY: Have a good support network at your disposal. Do not assume you will be able to do it all on your own. Do not be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
  11. RETURN JOURNEY: Ask yourself “Do I need to go back or can I carry on?” If you need to go back to where you started your journey what will you be able to take back with you? What will you have gained from the journey that was useful and relevant?

Party Pooper

New Year’s Eve is a time for partying, although this year more people stayed at home with a few friends and family rather than going out. I was one of those people and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

It led me to musing on the nature of parties and how we assess them.

Have you ever been to a party and spent the whole evening locked in stultifying conversation with the most boring person on earth?

Or have you been at a party where you were utterly absorbed by someone beautiful, witty, engaging?

It’s likely that based on your singular experience you formed an opinion about the party. In the first instance, it was the worst party you’d ever been to. In the second case it was the best.

The trouble is that the opinion is based on such limited information that it is actually worthless. For all you know, everyone else had a fantastic time because they had hooked up with all the scintillating people who were there. Or maybe everyone else had an awful time because you managed to commandeer the only interesting person at the party.

So making a judgement about how good the party was or wasn’t isn’t possible. The only judgement you can make is how good or bad the experience was for you.

We are so accustomed to extrapolating universal truths from singular experiences, that we are in danger of losing our grip on reality (whatever that is). We make decisions based on these ‘truths’ that are no more true than Clinton’s public denial of sexual misdemeanor! It might be as simple as refusing to  get involved with anyone called Belinda because you were dumped by a girl called Belinda when you were 15. Or maybe, you tried something once and didn’t like it much so you never try it again. (That was me with tomatoes for a while, but luckily I broke through the barrier and now I can’t get enough of them!)

More worrying is the way we make decisions that have a big impact on others without apprising ourselves of adequate information or perspective. We deny ourselves experiences that could enrich us, and we deny others the opportunities that they deserve or need.

So if your New Year’s Eve was a disappointment this year, don’t assume that this is what you can expect from every New Year. The next one might be better… or worse, but you won’t know unless you give it a chance.

2012 – Year of the ?

As the sun sets on 2011 and we look forward to 2012, I’m wondering what delights it will bring.

Anything can happen…and it probably will! But, we’ve heard so much of the gloom and doom and it’s not really helping me. Yes I know that economies are in dire straits and we are now paying a heavy price for a failed system, or a system that was failed by greed and avarice. But I need to believe in the power of human ingenuity (if not my own) to find new opportunities, and create new possibilities.

I was attempting to park my car in a Pay and Display car park just before Christmas. The minimum fee was £1.50 and I only had £1.35 in change. A young girl was standing beside me having just collected a ticket for her Mum. She turned to me and asked very sweetly, “Do you want some money?” The girl was about 12 years old. I’m 48 and was sporting my holiday stubble; wearing a long black overcoat and an obligatory silly Christmas hat, so not exactly an inviting sight! She offered without any expectation of return. I accepted her kind offer before realizing that among my small change there were coins that the machine wouldn’t accept. So I was no nearer actually paying for my parking space after all that.

But life is full of surprises; small and wonderful moments of unexpected kindness. As I was returning to my car, a man who had seen me struggling, drove by on his way out and offered me his ticket. It had 2 hours parking left on it.

As long as people retain this capacity to think about the needs of others and to offer help without any hope of reciprocation; I think we will prove ourselves more than up to the challenges we face.

So as 2012 begins, I have faith and expectation that wonderful things will happen and that I will be richer (in spirit if not in cash) at the end of it. There’s more out there than we know; there’s plenty to play for; so I’m not throwing my cards in yet!

Seek and Ye Shall Find…a bit!

I’m not alone, I’m sure, in finding myself misunderstood. It’s taken 29 years for me to be able to say “My wife understands me”, which is an indication of how long it can take to get on someone else’s wavelength. Of course, she might disagree.

And I am definitely not alone when I say that I am often totally perplexed by other people.“Why did they do that?”, “What on earth do they mean?”, or “Why don’t they get it?”

Stephen Covey talks about the need to first understand and then to be understood. He basically means ‘zip it’ and listen out for what other people are thinking and feeling, as well as what they are saying and how they are behaving. But he is careful enough to make this daunting task more manageable by suggesting we “Seek” to understand. It’s the seeking that’s important, even if we don’t fully understand each other.

My own view of the world is limited, inaccurate, partial, and inconclusive. So I shouldn’t expect to have a greater understanding of someone else’s. However, it is right that I should make the effort to explore and learn from others. How dull to have to rely on my own resources when the world is teeming with exciting possibilities, alternative viewpoints, information, ideas and beliefs. After all, it is these things that are responsible for why people do the things they do. It’s helpful to know this, or at least have an inkling!

So I’m going looking. And I’m also going listening. And I’m going to try doing those things first before succumbing to my often overwhelming need to pontificate. You should try it too.

There’s an irony here: I’m talking about seeking to understand others whilst pontificating in this blog. It just goes to show: nobody’s perfect and we shouldn’t expect them to be.

‘Lean’ shouldn’t mean ‘Mean’

Having recently viewed Tom Dyckhoff’s excellent ‘Secret life of Buildings’ on Channel 4 (UK) I’ve been reflecting on the number of work spaces I have visited as part of my consulting career.

I work with companies to help them find ways of developing their people, increasing their productivity, and creating a positive culture. And yet so many of the companies I work with ask their employees to function in bland, unappealing and soul-destroying environments.

What shocks me is how I have allowed myself to be fooled into thinking that a pot plant here or there, or a solitary piece of artwork on the wall is an adequate antidote to the blandness of open plan work spaces.

I’ve worked with the Highways Agency who, in one of their centres, had glass partitions with the image of trees embedded in them,  I must confess to being pleasantly surprised at the time by what I considered to be an innovative attempt made to ‘bring the outside in”. Of course, I only considered it innovative because every other building I had worked in made no attempt whatsoever to accommodate real people.

Most companies who want to do something about it feel hamstrung by the physical space they inherit (or lease) and are at a loss to know how they can adapt them (hence the pot plants!).

Three things strike me here:

1. Our quest for Lean working seems to be at odds with our basic psychology when it comes to minimalist office design

2. How have we reached a point where we design work spaces without taking into account what the space would need to look like to truly accommodate the psychological needs of workers?

3. How many other times have I allowed myself to be duped into accepting something is ‘good’ or ‘innovative’ or right  just because it is noticeably different to the norm?

Taking the last point first; I know I have been guilty of becoming transfixed by the big & bold new idea. It’s so new that I find it invigorating. That’s my nature and I am easily-led.

But this isn’t the worst thing I have to contend with about myself. It’s the more insidious, the trickle effect, where bit-by-bit I lower my standards without even realising because the change has been slow and incremental. It’s only much later when the veil is removed from our eyes that we see what we have become and what we have allowed to happen.

This was shockingly brought home to me when I visited Venezuela in the 1990’s. Seeing a seriously injured (and possibly dead) man lying in the middle of the freeway through Caracas, I urged my host to stop and offer some assistance. But people in Caracas have gradually become immune to death & suffering. Normal western rules no longer apply. “What if he has been placed there by people who want to steal your vehicle if you stop?”  “Who’s going to pay his medical (or burial) fees if you stop in a country that has no social health provision?” So over time, gradually, newcomers to Caracas adjust. I hadn’t adjusted, but my host had, and maybe I would have adjusted if I had remained in Venezuela for the long term. It’s amazing how we adapt to the environments around us when we know we have to live in them for the long-term.

Back to places of work, quickly! There’s usually much less bloodshed there.

My wife is a writer and works from home. We’re not stupid: why pay for office space when we already have 4 walls?

Her working pattern always varies (so no pattern, really!), but it consists of various elements and activities that look something like this.

  • Lying in bed, snuggled up with a duvet mulling over ideas and trying to resolve tricky plot and character issues.
  • Sitting in front of her computer, hammering out words on the keyboard.
  • Pacing around the house talking to agents, producers, editors, etc on the phone
  • Grabbing a bite to eat in the kitchen
  • Doing some research (using old fashioned books or the gloriously unregulated world wide web!)
  • Going for a walk to clear her head and allow ideas to coalesce in her brain
  • Spreading herself out on the living room floor or the dining table with reams of notes/ideas/articles

Now I’ve been around for quite a while but I have never yet seen a duvet in the workplace unless the workplace happens to belong to a duvet manufacturer!

I’ve heard of ‘duvet days’, but haven’t yet seen duvets and beds provided for employees so that they can fulfil their duties at work. (OK, so the Fire Service used to provide beds for the night-shift, but they are now expected to work through their shift, which is a novel idea!)

It sounds daft, but why shouldn’t the environment that my wife inhabits be replicated elsewhere? Her work isn’t that different to the work of many people who are based in offices. They also need to talk to people on the phone: they also need to think through thorny problems in order to arrive at sensible solutions; they also need to eat; they also need to type or access the internet. But their workplaces assume that they should be able to do all this in one place. Sitting at their desk in front of an electronic screen. How daft is that?

Why is it that our office and work spaces do not more closely resemble our home spaces? After all, we spend a sizable proportion of our time in them?

Who says that we shouldn’t have our own furniture, artifacts, colour-schemes and personal effects at work?

Who says that we should be tied to our desks?

Surely, there must be a way to challenge this?

Of course there are arguments against this, but I think most of them are are lazy arguments. They are the arguments that say, we need the space to work for everyone;  and we need order and simplicity in our workplace so clutter is bad. Fine, but I manage to live alongside other people with other tastes and we manage to knock along very well, thank you.  And I achieve order and simplicity in my home, even if my furnishings might not be to your taste. I have successfully managed my ‘clutter’ so that it doesn’t impede my work but adds colour, character and ambience. I work better as a result and people enjoy inhabiting the space.

Most of us leave our colourful homes in the morning, travel along colourful streets with colourful shop windows, only to arrive at our colourless workplace. The shock is almost too much. We feel the grey (or beige) descend upon us like a cloud of toxic waste. No wonder we don’t feel inspired, motivated, energised by work!

‘Lean’ was never meant to mean ‘mean’. We shouldn’t have to punish ourselves in return for having tidy workspaces. There’s ‘tidy’ and there’s ‘devoid of life’.

So I think we need to rethink our attitude to our work spaces. What do we need them to do for us? What do we need them to enable us to do? And then we need to create the space (or spaces) to fit the activities and the people that need to inhabit them.

  • If that means a winged-back chair or a mural with flying ducks, why on earth not?
  • If that means separate spaces for separate activities, why on earth not?
  • And if that means stretching our imagination (or simply applying the imagination we use in our own homes to our work spaces) why on earth not?

Let’s stop tolerating the bland: let’s be adventurous. If our work spaces don’t work for us: change them! And let’s not be afraid of allowing people to bring their strange and wonderful personalities to work.

Cultural Excuses?

Having just returned from two week’s working in Puerto Rico followed by a two week vacation in France, I am once again reminded how different we appear to be based on where we live.

But my observations have also led me to challenge some of the assumptions I have made about how much of our behaviour is dictated by our cultural heritage. In fact, I am drawn to the idea that perhaps we use our Culture as an excuse for failing to positively interact across cultures.

Culture is one of our great taboos. We’re minded ‘not to go there’ for fear of causing upset or being branded ‘racist’ or ‘xenophobic’. And this can prevent us from looking more closely at the way we behave. We can use our Culture too readily to condone behaviour that creates barriers between ourselves and others.

As a Brit (half Scottish and half English), I was struck by the warmth of welcome I received when I arrived in Puerto Rico. The ebullience of my hosts was a delightful surprise. I’d love to claim that this was put on purely for my benefit and that I had been singled out for special treatment. But this wouldn’t be true. My colleagues behaved like this with everyone.

Over the two weeks I observed behavioural norms that constituted hugging and kissing upon greeting and departing; people feeling very comfortable with touching and stroking as part of their normal, daily interactions; generosity of spirit; willingness to praise; relaxed about sharing their feelings and personal details; willing to open themselves up to each other; willing to put themselves out for each other. The list goes on.

Here in the UK, the picture is often very different. Can you imagine greeting your boss or your colleague on Monday morning with a huge bear hug? How routinely do you stop in a corridor to put your arms around a colleague, shake them warmly by the hand, share a joke and a smile?

The phrase I often hear is “We don’t do that here”; or variants such as “That’s not the way we do things”, or “We don’t find that culturally acceptable”.

Is this a distortion, a generalisation, an all-too-convenient smokescreen to divert our attention from the essential question, “What is the culture we need to create in order to achieve happiness and success?”

We talk about Culture Clashes as if they are inevitable. In fact we often use them to justify our failure to embrace new cultures and cultural behaviours.



They really are the bane of my life. No matter what choices I make I usually end up making the wrong one and offending someone. Something as simple as the humble tie, it seems, has the power to make or break a professional relationship.

When I visit a client’s premises the question I always ask is: “Do I need to wear a tie?” (or “Am I expected to wear a tie?). If I know them really well and I have sussed out that they typically dress down, I might choose to go without. The risk is that on that day there are a number of  people who are wearing ties and I am judged to be too casual for the role I am about to perform.

If I choose to err on the side of safety and wear a tie, I might find myself in an organisation that sees the wearing of ties as a symbol of stuffiness. It might set me apart from the client group and interrupt the rapport.

After years of struggling with this dilemma I have come up with a strategy that usually works. I always wear a tie and I make a big thing of removing it (often together with taking off my jacket, unbuttoning my shirt and rolling up my sleeves) if I judge the situation to be appropriate. It’s a semi-striptease, which more often than not helps to break the ice.

And yet I have worked in companies where the ‘culture’ has dictated that irrespective of the work or the environment, jackets and ties must be worn at all times. Even in extreme temperatures, the cultural norm is that a professional image can only be maintained by sweating profusely and enduring mild strangulation.

So back to Puerto Rico. I don’t think I saw a tie in sight apart from my own. Once ostentatiously removed, it hunkered down in a dark corner of my hotel room for the duration of the trip.

The tie serves as a simple metaphor for the conditions we appear to place on what is acceptable to us. Why should we wear them in the UK but not in Puerto Rico? It’s hotter there, but they have great air conditioning.

More and more we are operating cross-culturally. And something interesting is happening, but perhaps not fast enough. Work cultures are beginning to bleed into each other. Ultimately, a global work culture may be developed but we are a long way from this today. It should be possible to take the best bits of many cultures and blend them in a global whole that will allow international companies to trade and operate more successfully.

I am certainly not arguing that we should abandon cultural differences and identities. This is truly what makes our world so remarkable and intriguing. But it is possible to adopt and embrace some of the values that underpin the development of other cultures.

My argument is that we use ‘Culture’ in a misguided way to provide reasons for many bad or simply unhelpful practices, rather than to promote and share positive attributes.

Culture isn’t ‘out there’: it’s in here! It’s you, and every interaction you have with another person. It shouldn’t be an excuse. It shouldn’t be a restrictive label such as: “We can’t make autonomous decisions because we’re Swedish” or “We mustn’t show our feelings because we’re British”. Instead, we need to see culture as being a set of behaviours that enable all of us to find positive connections with our counterparts wherever they may be in the world.

If we can do this, our experience of work can be transformed.

My two weeks in Puerto Rico were perhaps the best I have ever experienced in my role as a consultant. The level of engagement; desire to learn;  commitment to creating a positive work environment; genuine interest in each other; levels of rapport and sincerity; and above all,  willingness to engage with other cultures, was truly inspiring. My visa application is in the post!

Are You Being Toyed With?

I have a daughter who is rather partial to dark chocolate ginger cookies. No sooner do they enter the house, they vanish into the dark and gloomy dungeon, otherwise known as her bedroom.

I’m told that chocolate has remarkable and essential properties for teenage girls (I’m told this by my teenage daughter, so this might not be wholly impartial or reliable, but I am prepared to let it pass.)

Having devoured three of the heavenly arterial constricting spheroids (approved by her mother), she provocatively requests a fourth to which she gets a quick rebuttal.

Now what can she do? Having been denied this pleasure by her mum, where else can she go? Of course, dear old dad! Dear old, old, preoccupied, soft dad.

And so she makes her way gently, calmly, serenely upstairs to the office where I work; tip-toeing so as not to annoy me before the request is made. And as she enters the room she suddenly loses years, presenting herself with her sweet angelic face, looking up to me with pure love, admiration and respect; and in dulcet tones which transport me back to her first words, says “Daddy…” (not Dad, or ‘Bumface’ or ‘old Codger’, but ‘Daddy’ – a name I haven’t heard for six years) “…can I have a ginger cookie, please?” And unable to help myself I say “Yes. Help yourself”.

Tragedy!!! Note: I didn’t just say ‘Yes’. I also said ‘Help yourself!” Which is exactly what she’ll do! No one more ginger cookie, but three or maybe more. Full approval sought and won.

Of course I am now in the dog house. And rightly so. because I have made the fundamental error of not being aligned with the rules of the house. I didn’t know about the other three cookies and I didn’t know she had already been denied. And that left me open to manipulation.

My daughter will need to know that this story has a point other than to parade her dark chocolate ginger cookie desire.

My point is that I see too many teams operating in this way, and that makes them vulnerable to exploitation from customers and suppliers alike. Failure to speak with one voice, means that individual team members are picked off one by one until the soft, pliable one is found.

If a customer doesn’t like the answer they get from you, they go to your colleague. Quickly it becomes obvious that this game works because customer’s get different answers to identical questions depending on who they ask. So they search around for the one person who will give them what they want, leaving the ‘team’ in disarray.

The irony is that in most cases, this isn’t good for customer, just as it isn’t good for the team. The resulting argument (or discussion) between my wife and I creates a dark atmosphere in the home and chocolate treats are removed from the shopping list for a month. But think of the wider implications for your customers:

  • Customers NEED teams to be together. If they have a relationship with the team rather than interacting on a ‘one-off’ basis, they need the certainty and confidence that whoever they approach from within the team, they will get the same and the right answer. This saves time and angst, all of which cost money.
  • Customers want to know what they are getting. This isn’t possible if the team offering is not well-defined. You can’t have a brand which depends on how someone is feeling from one day to the next.
  • Customers need a team to be organised. Dis-organised teams create confusion, waste and errors.
  • Customers need teams to be accountable. They need to know that their issues will be addressed by the team, not by who-ever feels like it (or doesn’t, as the case may be).
So, although it might feel like a victory for a customer who manages to take advantage of a weak team, it will only be short-lived. Because a team that is not together ultimately won’t be in a position to serve the customer. It won’t have a product worth selling, and even if it does, it won’t be able to sell it at an affordable price. That’s because the internal waste will make it non-viable.
And even if  by some miracle you can overcome all this and still find customers who are prepared to pay over the odds, a fractured team will continue to hurt its customers by delay, diminished quality and inconsistent service levels. No customer wants that. No customer will buy that…more than once.
So if you feel you are being toyed with by your customers, ask yourself: “Are we together as a team? ” If not, do something about it. Because you aren’t the only victim in this scenario.

Not quite 10 out of 10 – but perfection is overrated!

I’ve just completed this year’s Manchester Bupa 10k. Haile Gebrisellassi romped home to take the crown in little over 28 minutes, looking fresh as a daisy. I staggered over the finishing line in 46:43 and have been recovering all week!

It’s a personal best over this course but short of my record over the 10k distance. Naturally, tiredness gives way to disappointment at not hitting my target (anything under 45 minutes), but now I’m beginning to reflect that in three years I have gone from just over 60 minutes to just over 45 minutes for this distance, whilst becoming three years older.

Setting personal goals can lead to disappointment or frustration, but the real killer is not setting them at all.

So that sub-45 minutes still beckons, even if it takes me another three years. At least I’ll be fit, healthy and less guilty about the odd pint!

Hello world!

Finally broken into the 21st century.

Will this blogging business really get me going, or is it another procrastination tool? Time will tell.