Monday, July 13, 2009

The end of an era, time for something new!

After nearly two and a quarter years of running my blog on Gmail’s Blogger platform, it is time for me to switch to something new, an environment where there is more to offer both my readers and contributors alike.

The good news is that on the new blog which incidentally gets a new name (‘Changing Business’) you can sign up to having my blogs delivered directly into your e-mail inbox each week or on to your mobile phone, if you wish. Either way, I hope you do not find the switch too annoying? I know only too well that all unwelcome change can be a hassle, but I am sure that when you switch over, you’ll immediately see why I made the move?

See you on the other side! click here......

Monday, July 6, 2009

Project Go-Lives are not what they used to be!

When I was a teenager I was often asked to organize student parties. Somehow I always seemed to be picked out for the one that got things done. In the beginning there was always something that either I, or one of my friends, forgot (apart from the alcohol which always came first). In fact we used to enjoy partying so much that we used to arrange ‘dress rehearsals’ the day before, just to make sure the bottle openers worked, the beer was cool, and the music was loud enough etc.. The problem was, it was often the dress rehearsals that caused many of the issues (beer shortages and neighbors getting upset on the second night etc.).

Looking back, the interesting thing about watching amateurs organize events or projects is that they don’t care too much about forgetting something. My theory for this is that people get a buzz from ‘fixing’ things. Bad planning nearly always results in people having an adrenaline rush of creative thinking in order to solve challenges such as: “where can we find flowers and 50 balloons at this time of night?”

Today, with project methodologies such as PMI, Prince 2 and any other approach that works, good planning and a mitigation strategy take out all the fun of the chaos that is normally associated with Go-Live day. It has been a very long time since I had to play Pizza man at three in the morning!

Why am I writing this blog? 1. Because it is Go-Live day on the first leg of a massive project I am working on and 2. Because it is a testament that having vision, staying focused, setting up objective criteria from which to measure readiness for go-live and surrounding yourself with just the right number and caliber of people, us humans can do just about anything!

Perhaps more interesting than a blog on successful project go-live days, would be a blog on project disasters? So if you some disaster stories, I would be very happy to share them, after all, we learn more from our mistakes than our successes and also it would at least pass the time… until I hear, “Harley, we have a problem…”

Have a good week,


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Innovation, is it really so important?

Last Friday , at the Solvay annual MBA gala in Brussels I was asked what the word innovation meant to me. Instead of giving an answer there and then, I asked for some time to consider the question, after all it was late and topics such as this are not the lightest to handle after a couple of glasses of wine.

I remember reading, just the other week, that ‘all companies need to innovate themselves out of the recession’ and I wondered what the world would be like if they could? If the solution could ever be that simple and if innovation were to be treated like a commodity, why didn’t we simply bring in the professional innovators? After all, it is all too easy to criticize and yet so difficult to propose a solution or an original idea.

With whole websites geared over to innovation (such as: and people speaking about innovation as if they had invented it for themselves, it got me wondering…

Firstly I want to share with you, the Chambers’ dictionary definition of innovation, just so that we cannot have any misunderstandings:
I quote: ‘Innovate: v.t. to renew, alter: to introduce something as new… a novelty, the substitution of one obligation for another.’ So this definition does not help us much. Wikkipedia tells us: ‘The term innovation means a new way of doing something. It may refer to incremental, radical, and revolutionary changes in thinking, products, processes, or organizations.’ – Now that’s more like it!

It is important, however, that we do not get carried away with the second definition and confuse invention and innovation. To 'invent' almost implies creating something out of nothing, as in research and development. Whereas, in the truest sense of the word, 'innovation' is more about using the crux of something that already exists but in a new and different way. And this, to me, defines innovation as possibly the most important tool (or concept) for gaining increased efficiency and new hope into tired businesses and projects.

So 'yes' is the answer to my question, without doubt. Innovation is absolutely essential for taking something that is broken and putting it to good use, maybe even for something that it was never originally intended for. If you link this concept to personnel, it is not a giant leap to imagine that for people that are de-motivated; that possibly worry if they will still have a job at Christmas, or feel that the skills they have are no longer suited to what society is needing right now, you do not need to have a Phd to realize that it is innovation that they need to re-invent belief and their own self net worth. To be truly innovative we need to be open minded, confident, daring and certainly not risk averse.

So when you see people taking on responsibility, even for what might seem as a daft idea, and when you hear people say “What the heck, it’s worth a try, what have we got to loose?” Then you know that hope has infiltrated its way into your project or business. And as long as you do not dampen out the creative flames with bureaucracy and sarcasm, then you stand a good chance of survival. Because first ideas are often crazy, but soon people gather round to watch the madness and in doing so offer help and make suggestions with the frequent result that is often both surprising and profitable. What’s more, it was ‘their’ idea and not yours and ‘they’ will work and work in order to show you that they have a worth, a vision, an idea, a possible way forward.

(To misquote Tennyson’s in memoriam) it is better to have tried and fail, than never to have tried at all.
Wishing you an innovative week,


Monday, June 22, 2009

When is your project ready for go-live?

‘You don’t need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows’, but give the same source data to a number of different weather forecasters and nine days out of ten – you’ll end up with differing predictions (unless, perhaps, you’re living in the Sahara).
Assuming the above is true, then how can we rationally and safely know when a complex project is ready for go-live, especially if the decision to go or not to go, can have a major impact upon the business? As my MBA students know, at the beginning of any project I ask myself three questions:
1. What is the problem we are solving?
2. How will we know when it is solved?
3. How will we measure it?
This is basically a dramatic over simplification of a business case – but they are the three questions that are most overlooked. Hence, early on, I build a slide deck that I will use at the very end of the project at go-live decision making time and again at the end of the evaluation phase.
The answer to the question is that the PM should not make a decision because he, or she, alone does not know exactly when to go live. Instead he guides his Project Board into making a unanimous decision, based upon very specific sign off criteria.
The format of the decision making process should be displayed in a slide deck with one or two slides per measuring point, with a summary slide that covers the whole topic at the end or beginning. An important part of this exercise is that the sign off criteria has to be formulated and agreed way in advance by each member of the Project Board, based upon specialist advice from the experts below each and every one of them.
No one member of the project board is exempt from taking on the ownership of ensuring the well being of the business. This has nothing to do with apportioning blame but everything to do with collective responsibility, involvement and personal commitment.
So when is your project ready for go-live? What criteria do you use – it’s worth thinking about, long before your next crunch time comes!
Have a good week,


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Planning ahead – what’s the point? It’s provisioning that we need

Every professional project manager knows that the secret to a successful project lies, for a very large part, in good planning. And I for one would say nothing to suggest otherwise. However, there’s a very poignant Jewish joke that sometimes returns to haunt me. Question: “How do you make God laugh?” Answer: “You tell him your plans”.

This is not the kind of joke that has you rolling over with laughter but a kind of double action joke that affects you on multiple levels. On the one hand the idea of God being able to see your future and that he cruelly takes pleasure in being able to laugh out loud as to how wrong you are. And on the other hand, on a more cynical level, where you yourself can look back and laugh (or cry) at the vision you once had and how it has turned out so differently.

I guess there maybe some people (purely based upon the law of averages) that for them, everything goes to plan? But for the most of us, this is clearly not the case. This does not however mean that things necessarily turn out for the worse – quite the contrary. Even in our biggest tragedies comes new hope, new ideas, and even new life.

The point I am making is this: Both in our business and in our personal life, there is no point in making very detailed, long term plans for the future. If you have ambition and you know what you want you should set out a strategy, not a plan, to best try and reach it. I suggest the following:
1. Understand very clearly where you are right now
2. Work hard on developing a clear and plausible vision as to where you want to be
3. Formulate a very clear strategy
4. Ensure you maintain discipline and follow rigorously your short term planning
5. Make provisions for the future

Every adventurer knows that they need a plan, but every adventurer quickly realizes that plans need to be constantly adjusted and revised in order to keep the long term vision in sight. But more important than plans are provisions. We need just enough provisions to keep us going through the rough times but not too much that they weigh us down or make us lazy. And this is the delicate balance that most businesses are facing right now.

So when planning for the future, think in terms of strategy and not detailed plans. And when you have plans, be prepared to change them for the sake of the long term vision. However, the one thing you should never compromise on is ensuring that you have sufficient provisions for yourself and those that depend upon you. Only a fool risks their own life, let alone, the lives of others by setting off with insufficient provisions to reach their next base.

Have a good week,


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Who needs Optimists?

I am not sure which is worse, being surrounded by optimists or by pessimists? Both types are enough to drive me nuts.

HR recruiters are always looking for optimistic candidates – self starters with big ideas and imagination – all sounds great, but…

Too many people confuse the word optimism with enthusiasm. I used to be an optimist, but over the years I a find myself becoming more and more of a realist. Sure, I believe I can do almost anything in my head, but I have learned from experience to separate dreaming from the reality of being awake.

Optimists are very often lazy. They tend to think that somehow, simply by being optimistic, things will get done. Enthusiastic people, on the other hand, enjoy a challenge. They think about the hard work ahead of them, but it does not frighten them. They are not afraid of pain. The mountain they are facing is a massive challenge waiting to be concurred. For an optimist, the mountain is nothing more than a hill and almost anyone could climb it, if they really wanted to.

Perhaps the solution is to ask HR to recruit enthusiastic people only? Or is it? What blend of people types do we need to form the perfect change project team?

Assuming a project team of 10 is needed, I suggest the following blend:

1 x visionary with a deep knowledge of the environment
1 x optimist with charismatic leadership and an ego that can adopt someone else’s vision
5 x enthusiasts , each with the necessary key skills to do the task (preferably with at least one or two with a good, balanced, sense of humor)
2 x pragmatic realists (planners and performance analysts)
And finally:
1 x pessimist to highlight each and every hazard and thus to become the one person for everyone to get pissed at, thereby uniting the entire group, whilst keeping them from danger!

Enjoy your week!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

An existential approach to process optimization

This week I had a meeting with a client that, for a moment, took me back to my college days and the intense, alcohol induced philosophical debates my fellow students and I used to get drawn into. The debates often involved trees in forests, fish, bread and bicycles etc. Jean Paul Satre’s ‘The Age of Reason’ and Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ both came flooding back.

I was in a meeting with a senior manager whose team had the responsibility for designing KPI’s for measuring the effectiveness of business processes. At one point I ignorantly suggested that to design an efficient process it is best to separate technology from the process itself. I suggested that no matter whether we are in SAP, Cognos, BO, or any other system for processing and/or reporting, we simply need to get back to the essence of the transaction itself. It was at that precise moment that my client interrupted me by saying:

“Harley, I have been studying this exact theory for the last 13 years and no matter how I approach it, I realize that what you are saying is impossible. Try imagining even the simplest of processes without the use of tools. For example, imagine how to design the process of getting from your home to your office without any tools or technology – you can not, it’s just not possible. So we are obliged to accept that tools are an intrinsic part of the process its self, there is no other way of approaching it”.

I considered what he said for a while then told him a true story:

I was once working in China, my client was in the closing stages of building a giant chemical production plant which was situated two and a half kilometers away from the regional head office. The problem was that twice per day a massive amount of data needed to be transferred between the plant’s production systems and the servers located in the regional head office. By coincidence, I had joined a technical meeting addressing the problem, at the point where everyone present had seemingly exhausted all the options. I was told that: ‘Laying a dedicated cable meant tunneling under our competitors factory. Going around it was way too expensive and the cable would then be subject to damage from road building schemes and other forms of maintenance. Using satellite or 3G technology would be too unreliable and would cost the earth.’

The participants were close to panicking – the new plant had cost millions of dollars and was only a few weeks from going on line. It was then I noticed a Chinese construction worker cycling past on his bicycle – “Why can’t you do it manually”? , I asked. “Why not simply download the data onto an external hard drive and have someone cycle with it to office”? The room fell silent. “Are you kidding?” someone asked. “No, I am deadly serious! Give me one good reason as to why it might not work? Give me a simpler, better idea if you have one. If you are worried about risk, download the data onto two hard drives and have two cyclists, one in reserve – just in case”.

As far as I know, to this day the bicycle method is still being used!

Of course – this process, just like any other, uses a tool so my client is correct – but it is not the kind of tool that technologist naturally consider – why? Because, it’s too simple, too embarrassing to admit to one’s colleagues. Me, I don’t care. I am not an engineer. I am just a pragmatic manager that dislikes endless discussions and simply likes to get on with the job in hand. (Except when I have had a few too many units of alcohol and I am in the presence similarly intoxicated philosophers)…

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mitigation Strategy or Contingency plan what difference does it make?

Some of our profession spend a great deal of effort making contingency plans that cover just about every conceivable scenario. In fact in some cases I have noticed it as an obsession. The first tell tale signs are a seemingly never ending barrage of “but what if?” questions. Admittedly, sometimes it can be difficult to know exactly where to draw the line.

I like to make a simple matrix, high chance/ high impact to low chance / low impact and then to focus on the areas that demand the most attention. The important point of the exercise is to make sure that you rely on the input of a wide group of people. I recommend short brainstorming sessions, beginning with everyone writing down their top ten major concerns on a piece of paper and then followed by a comparative discussion until you have enough input to build the matrix and to construct a well thought through contingency plan.

However with the recent outbreak of Swine Flu it is not always easy to recognize the logic. It is hard to work out what is hysteria and what is ‘reasonable concern’. Apparently this week the guests of the Metro Park hotel in Hong Kong were quarantined in their hotel because a few days earlier the hotel received a visitor from Mexico that had subsequently fallen ill.

The British government has been printing leaflets to be delivered into every letterbox in the land, sharing pearls of wisdom such as(and I quote):

When you cough or sneeze it is especially important to follow the rules of good hygiene to prevent the spread of germs:
• Always carry tissues.
• Use clean tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze.
• Bin the tissues after one use.
• Wash your hands with soap and hot water or a sanitiser gel often.

But the one I liked best was on the BBC website:
• If you have flu symptoms and recently visited affected areas of Mexico, seek medical advice

Some people use the term ‘mitigation strategy’ while others call it a contingency plan – to be honest I don’t know the difference. What I do know is that the guests of the Metro Park have plenty of time to debate the subject, once they have completed the filling in their travel insurance forms, in the vain hope of receiving some kind of compensation.

I have always wanted to visit Hong Kong. I have flown over it a few times but never had the time to land. I am just imagining what it must be like to have finally arrived in your hotel, only to be told that you can not leave it until your holiday is over!

One last piece of great advice from the Kaikora District Council and the University of Otago, New Zealand:
‘if you have to go out in public keep at least one metre away from other people and avoid making physical contact.’


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Who are the best decision makers in the world?

For those of you that are familiar with my nine step approach to complex problem solving will know just how seriously I take the subject of decision making, in fact I devote a whole step to it. I place a lot of emphasis on deciding up front how the decision will be made and who exactly should take it. Depending upon the type of decision and its urgency I put forward various possibilities of approach. But this week I learned a new much simpler way and it has got me thinking as to how I could make it work within my client’s organization structures.

Imagine this. Imagine that you are looking to rent an apartment, obviously you will map some specific criteria: location (convenience and safety), price per month, number of bedrooms, oil fired or gas central heating and so on. Once you have your criteria and have viewed a few choices that fit, you then begin the difficult phase of weighing up one option against the other. This process is not so difficult if you are the only person going to live in the apartment, but imagine you were looking for a head office location for a multi-national company with desk space for 2000 administrators. What if I told you there is another way, an easier and more efficient way?

This week Dr. Elva Robinson of Bristol University offered a valid alternative to our clumsy decision making processes. She deducts from her observations that you simply need to elect a scout to go out and find a location and not to bother to compare alternatives at all.

Basically the idea is that you simply look until you find a location that meets all your criteria and move in! But that’s impossible I hear you say, and indeed it probably is for humans, but ants do this all the time. By gluing radio transmitters to the backs of 2000 rock ants Dr. Elva’s students discovered that ants appoint ‘estate agents’ that go out and look for a new nest when the old one gets close to becoming unfit for purpose. The ant agents have the full approval of the colony, they have very specific criteria and when they find something suitable the whole colony moves in and gets on with the required building and alterations. No debates, no board meetings, contracts or lawyers, just simple delegation and logical decision making.

In fact us humans are pretty bad at decision taking. If we are given multiple alternatives we may begin by approaching the topic logically, but more often than not, at the last minute we mess everything up by taking a completely irrational decision based upon instinct or a seemingly completely irrelevant criteria point, always trying to justify it to ourselves afterwards, especially if it turns out to be a bad one.

Now, if you are thinking that an ant colony is a much more straightforward structure than a business, you should look a little closer. It certainly is much more efficient and effective. I think us humans can learn a thing or two about delegation and decision making from Dr. Robinson and her study on ants. After all, she reminds us that there are probably more ants in the world than humans – that has to be some measure of success? After we have screwed up the environment so much that we become extinct, I wouldn’t mind supposing that Rock ants will still be around taking the right decisions for their long term well being and safety.

Now it’s back to advising my clients and guiding them into bringing in the right criteria and methodology to ensure they take the right decisions. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!

Have a good week,

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tough change: The French and the British can be so resistant!

Change managers are paid to anticipate resistance, to make strategy and contingency plans for it and, in short, to ensure a smooth transaction from an existing situation to something new.

Historically, apart from wars between countries, there have been some massive change projects that I would have been proud to have claimed to ‘have managed’ :

• 3 September 1967, Sweden switching from driving on the left to driving on the right,
• January 1, 2002: the Germans give up the Deutschmark for the Euro
• 28 March, 2005: the Irish introduce a no smoking ban in all public places, including pubs and cafe’s.

This week the French switched to a new style car number plate. Previously, the plate was issued to the person and not the car. It indicated the region from which the owner came from. As from this week the two digit regional identifier has been removed causing much upset and push back.

Probably the most resented of all the French regions is 75. If you live in Troyes and you see a car badly parked, you would likely be inclined to look at its number plate and if it turned out to be from the region 75 then you would most likely explain it away by saying “typical Parisian!” And if you were stuck behind a dithering car in the capital city and noticed that the plate came from your local home town, you would probably sympathize with the driver and refrain from honking your horn.

And so is it, from now French children won’t have the fun game of spotting regions on long car journeys, and everyone will lose (against their will) the link between themselves and their regions. But the French authorities have brought in one concession – they have left a space at the end of the plate, where the owner can add a sticker indicating where they come from. Of course, like all last minute initiatives, this has not been thought through because people can put on any sticker they like. So Parisians on holiday in Reims can switch their stickers and pretend to be from somewhere else! How strange and unpredictable we humans are. How strange that we become so chauvinistic about where we come from and where we would like to be!

In my experience, change managers have the biggest difficulty not with handling massive changes but small ones. I once managed a change project for a multi-national company where we had to introduce US Qwerty keyboards into all their offices across the globe. In Spain and Germany (where quite frankly the impact was massive) the resistance was predictably vocal but balanced and a solution was found. In the UK, however, where the difference in the keyboard is almost zero (only the British pound sign is replaced by a $, and a couple of other very minor differences) the resistance was incredible. I had not expected it and had no plan in place to fight off the vociferous and passionate resistance. The argument thrown at me was that because the change was so small, there was no point in doing it! The UK resistors expected us to make technological changes to our platform and change our purchasing procedures where in every other country, the globalization argument of ‘anyone working anywhere’ had won the day.

Life is strange and people unpredictable and as long as it remains this way, us change managers will continue to have a purpose and a very interesting life!

Friday, April 3, 2009

An e-mail from my mother and an excellent lesson on business efficiency

My mother replied to an e-mail in which I mentioned that my lawn mower is at the repairers, just at the time when I need it most. My mother is 80 years old and her lawn is bigger than a full size tennis court, with additional grass paths and grass covered orchards. In her reply she gives me seven valuable lessons in four lines of text, amazing:

Here’s what she wrote:


Can't you borrow a mower from a neighbour, friend or relative? I get my mowers serviced in the winter when it is 10% cheaper, I must admit that Judith takes it for me to where she gets her machines serviced. We cut all the grass today, using the big machine to pick up the leaves etc. Then I can use my mulcher, a smaller, manageable size with no grass box to empty, so much quicker.

Have a good weekend,

Love Mum xxx

The seven lessons:
Lesson one: be resourceful
Lesson two: solve the real problem and don’t complain
Llesson three: plan ahead
Lesson four: save on bottom line costs
Lesson five: delegate and get the task done,
Lesson six: be efficient; use the right tool for job
Lesson seven: put the right tools in the hands of the right employees

Here’s my reply:


Me and grass, we have a love / hate relationship – I try to ignore it and hope it goes away, it ignores me and keeps on growing!

Following your email I have put an annually reoccurring reminder in my computer to take the lawn mower in for a service on the first Saturday of December every year.

I think human evolution takes so long purely because the things we should do to improve, we don’t do – because for the most of us, planning ahead is not natural. In prehistoric times (and still today for the millions of those that are living on the edge) we lived for the now moment, each day, live or die.

In business I learned to plan ahead and have created elaborate focus, planning and progress measuring systems – but in my private life, I simply want to go home, chill out, listen to radio 4 and drink a glass of white wine in the sunshine – all the rest is an unwelcome interruption ;-)

Love Harley xxx

I know my mother, I know she’s going to reply “Harley, stop theorising and just get on with it, if you follow my advice – you won’t have to even cut the grass yourself , you lazy swine!“

If my wife reads this blog, I'll have to go and borrow my neighbours lawn mower and I'll spend my sunny Saturday cutting grass - I need an excuse, quick!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

You are never too old to learn, just too stupid!

I heard this expression for the first time last week, with the timing of a true comic performer my brother in law delivered it with absolute style and panache. After quietly laughing to myself (for fear of causing upset) it got me thinking.
It is true that we humans seem to make the same mistakes over and over again, even when we are ‘old enough to know better’. Most of us are motivated to learn because we see an intrinsic benefit for ourselves. For example; we learn a new language because we want to go on holiday or do business in countries where the majority mother tongue is not the same as our own, We follow an MBA course because we want to advance our career by rapidly increasing our general knowledge of business and economics.
So needlessly to say, I get upset when I hear people say ‘I am too old to learn….’. I believe you are never too old, it is just an excuse. There are countless stories of elderly people learning the most amazing new skills. Twenty years earlier the ‘I am too old to learn’ types would probably have used some other lame excuse such as ‘I am not cut out for this kind of thing’. Why don’t people say the truth and just admit that they can not be bothered, that they are simply not interested enough in the subject to go through all the hassle of learning something new? And yet all of us, in certain aspects of our lives continue to repeat our old mistakes because we are too lazy (or dare I say stupid) to learn or know better.
I recently led an MBA course at the Solvay Business School in Brussels and it became obvious to me that not all the students had the same academic level. And sure enough some of the students scored very high in their exams while others, scraped through and although some of the difference can be put down to the amount of effort invested, another part is simply a question of intellect, or the ability to rapidly store and hold data.
I do not mind admitting that I was not the brightest student in my class, I always returned average results, so in order for me to do well in anything, I had to put in a lot more effort than the more gifted students. However, as I went into business, I realized that success is more about the application of knowledge and not so much the amount of knowledge acquired. By the time I was in my mid thirties, I had discovered my true strengths and worked hard to improve them to such a point that I began achieve real success and to understand my net worth.
Coming to terms with the fact that you cannot be good at everything is important. By selecting the best team available, to compliment your weaknesses, and then motivating them to work together, each one utilizing their unique skills to the advantage of the group – is one of the true secrets to having a successful and versatile business.
The advance of the personal computer has given people with higher emotional intelligence than academic intelligence an enormous boost. Pda’s and laptops can store and retrieve all the ‘unimportant’ information accurately and efficiently, whenever it is needed, meaning one’s inability to remember the exact date of a meeting or the name of a supplier you once met – is no longer so critical.
Even the oldest person on the planet can learn a new language – it might take them longer than a child, but a few words in the head of a wise person, are worth a thousand in that of a fool!
So if you are finding yourself saying ‘I am too old to learn’, correct yourself – you are not too old, you’re simply too stupid to admit that the subject does not interest you enough for the effort required.
Hans Eysenck apparently once claimed he could teach anyone enough mathematics to get them to university entrance level, so there is hope for all of us!
Be cleaver out there………

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The power of a really good story

To communicate well you need to find a common level of understanding. At its highest (most intellectual) point it can be a professor sharing knowledge to his or her students, on the lowest level it can be two people engaged in physical arm to arm combat or a couple making love.
However somewhere between these extremes is the power of a really good story. There is no doubt in my mind that a powerful story can have an enormous impact. For managers, consultants and leaders it is one of the finest ways of sharing personal vision, beliefs and insight. And if the story can be reduced to a single line or slogan, then the chance of it being remembered long after it was originally told will increase dramatically.

Take Shakespeare, for example – how many people know the story of Romeo and Juliet and how many people remember the line “Romeo, Romeo where for art thou Romeo?” Take Hamlet with its litany of one liners:
‘Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice’ (listen more than speak)
‘Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy’ (live within your means)
‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend’ (do not lend or borrow money, especially with friends because you are likely to lose both).

Last week a colleague told me a story about his childhood, growing up on a Greek island. The story was powerful and engaging, it shared with me the innermost thoughts and values of the story teller. It turned a colleague into a friend; someone that I felt I could rely on in times of need.

What is your story? Everyone needs to have their own. How do you ensure that people remember you after your first encounter is over? How do you install in your listeners a feeling of trust? Your story needs to be clear, engaging and in its very essence true (you can embellish a little but only for the sake of entertainment and good communication).

Make sure your story can be edited for length, to slip comfortably into the amount of time you have with your audience and not to fill it completely. A good rule of thumb is anywhere from thirty minutes to thirty seconds. Look straight into the eyes of your listeners. If you lose their engagement, adjust the length but never the content. It is your story, share who you really are. Your story should not be used as a weapon or a con trick to win the favor of your audience. For as Shakespeare wrote (again in Hamlet): ‘to thine ownself be true’ (be genuine, be true to yourself). You are who you are and although you may aspire to being someone else, it is you that matters and not who you might want to be or become that is relevant in business. Those matters are for you and your councilors.

Enjoy your week

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The guy's a liar

The guy’s a liar, he really is. He told me that it he didn’t go running to his N+1 when is all along his N+1 maintains it was him and him alone that briefed him from the very start.
Anyone working in change management knows that reading people and learning their motives is the trick to identifying the real challenge ahead. The trouble is that most people do not tell you the truth, at best they offer you their version of it. They tell you whatever it is they think you want to hear. However, there a few people that actually believe the lies they tell, converting them into a new and strange reality the moment the words pore out of their mouths. So when you speak with their colleagues (to try and get a 360deg view of the situation) you find that their version of ‘the truth’ is consistently out of line with the common view (assuming one can be detected).

Everybody wants to convince you that they are to be trusted (and indeed everyone should be). But some people are simply unable to objectively separate fantasy from reality. Interestingly, once this tendency has been identified, it can in fact make one’s life easier, simply because liars and fantasist are very often consistent.

A few years ago I worked with a guy that spent a great deal of time and effort telling people what he had said to this boss and that. However, once I had come to the conclusion that he was in fact living in a fantasy land of his own making; he became the easiest person to read of all. Everything he said was both the truth and a lie at the same time: it was the truth in as much that what he told me was indeed what he wanted to say, but a lie in as much that he had in fact done completely the opposite. For example if he said ‘I tried to warn the CEO that he was going in the wrong direction but he didn’t listen’ – in reality meant: ‘I congratulated the CEO on his insight and vision, unfortunately however I didn’t know what to believe in at the time, but looking back the CEO was obviously steering us all in the wrong direction.’ Eventually he became so predictable, I simply had to reverse what I heard and I was instantly very close to reality. It’s just like when people open with a qualifying statement such as ‘I am not a sexist, but……’ and then follow with a barrage of outrageous comments and observations. Somehow the pretence seems to make them feel immune from future attack or persecution.

So the guy is a liar, he is only telling me what he thinks I want to hear – and my knowing this, in a strange way, makes my job a little easier because if everyone told the truth, how would I ever know?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What’s the worst interview you ever had?

A colleague of mine told me about an absolutely terrible interview he had a few years back, where the recruiter treated him with almost contempt, not even bothering with the normal niceties about the company, the position or future prospects etc.
As I outline in Making a Difference, one of the big secrets to success in business is to surround yourself with the best team possible and to ensure that you manage the team in such a way as to keep it performing to its absolute potential. But the first question is how can you be sure of recruiting the best? In the book I outline a number of tricks and tips, but I now want to study the subject in much more depth, to form the research for my next book. To that end I am looking for true life stories of the worst interviews ever!
So if you have a terrible interview story please let me know. You can either post it in this blog or, if you want to keep it confidential, you can send me an e-mail via and someone from the team will contact you to find the best way to capture your experience in detail.
Looking forward to receiving your experiences,

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Darwinian approach to creative thinking

It was in the middle of a particularly boring conversation that I recently had my eureka moment. It’s not that the vision I gained is going to challenge my understanding of the laws of evolution or anything as grand as that but it has, however, assisted me in understanding a little more the dynamics of creative thinking.
When a group of people get to know each other extremely well by spending a great deal of time together, the group tends move into what I now refer to as a 'dormant state'. It is not as if they are asleep as such, but they begin to interact in ‘Safe Mode’. The group tends to become very apathetic towards creativity and decision taking. It often becomes a completely dysfunctional group and splits into smaller sub groups or it becomes an operational team devoid of the desire for change. In either mode the group tends to become overtly resistant to any kind of change and is too often closed for genuine creativity. Only the daily news or office gossip can temporarily divert its attention this way or that.
I have observed this phenomenon on several occasions but only recently recognized it for what it is. When I first step into a company, it is a usual process for me to quickly identify areas for concern, I do this by asking questions, by challenging the ‘norm’ that I see, and in doing so, I sometimes inadvertently awaken new thought processes.
I try to encourage the consideration of a different reality. For example I often hear statements like: “The trouble with our company is that there is no real communication between departments”. I like to challenge these kind of statements with “how should it be? What is your vision of interdepartmental utopia”? I then try to set about taking the first step to empowering people to tackle their own complaints. In the case of non inter departmental communication, I would encourage the first steps to building it – sometimes it can be as mundane as identifying a simple topic of mutual interest or benefit and then setting up a small meeting between a few people from the two departments in question. Results can be surprisingly quick and very encouraging, especially if progress is encouraged with a mixture of self discipline and benefit focus.
If mankind is to continue to move forward and solve the desperate problems it is currently facing, then influence makers need to be constantly ‘awakened’; to be challenged by new ideas. Often this can only occur by the simple addition of a stranger into a settled group, a change in the team's dynamics. In this way our reality is are challenged and we are forced to decide on new paths to follow; this way or that, to resist or adapt, to accept the stranger into the group (enriching its dna) or to rejecting him or her completely? Either way, decison processes are awakened and with them oportunities for change, no matter how small, are born.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Putting you customer somewhere down the food chain

If you think that Proximus, now Belgacom mobile (the Belgian nationalized mobile phone company) is bad try this for size! The following story is a good example of designing a credit procedure that touches the customer and alientates them right from the start.

Recently I started a new assignment in Germany and so needed to buy a German SIM card for my mobile Phone. I chose T-Mobile (the biggest supplier in Germany). The following describes their approach to customer awareness and demonstrates the internal workings of their business processes:

1 Visit T-Mobile Shop in Leverkusen
a. Wait 30 minutes to be served
b. Friendly assistant (speaks only a very little English)- OK
c. Explain my needs – business use, lots of international calls etc., give permission for them to take as much from my account or from my Master card they need to cover my bills.
d. Walk out with Sim card
e. 2 hours later active.
2. All contracts, letters and bills in German
3. Cannot set up my answer phone - do not understand German (I speak Dutch and English but these are not options)
4. Visit website – no website in any other language than German
5. Get help - someone calls and I am given a special number, obtain the option for my outgoing answer phone message in English!
6. (Two weeks later) phone service stops working – German message, don’t understand it – get help. Message says “Use another phone to call this number.”
a. My German friend calls the number : they refuse to speak to her because she is not me!
b. We ask for English customer support – not an option!
c. A colleague then calls telling that I do not speak German so please speak to talk to them instead, eventually they agree.
d. Phone is cut off because I have spent 260EUR on international calls, Remedy:
i. I must go to a post office and pay in 260EUR in cash
ii. Obtain a receipt
iii. Fax the receipt to a special number
iv. Phone will be re-connected
e. Go to bank - obtain cash
f. Go to T-Mobile shop to pay in cash and to tell them to increase my credit.
i. No one speaks English
ii. Cannot pay my bill in the shop – must go to Post Office
g. Find Post office – pay in cash – must pay 8EURs extra for paying in cash
h. Send Fax and letter
i. Phone re-connected quickly – but for how long?
It seems incredible to me that such a high technology company cannot contact the customer prior to their credit limit being reached, that they cannot inform the customer in advance what their credit limit is! That customer’s cannot pay in money in their own shops!
Proximus (covering a client base of a fraction of the size of T-Mobile) has customer service and a website in four languages, it has shops in every town that are open right through the day, they will take your money and they treat you with respect. + their technological options seem way ahead of T-Mobile re their answerpohne (T-Mobile have no delete message, save message or auto dial caller options.
I am NOT a typical Brit that expects everyone to speak English, but I have just arrived in Germany and have not yet had time to learn the language and I cannot believe that there are no other people living Germany that do not speak German either?

I think we should invent an award for the worst business process ever - any contenders?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Profits of doom are staring at their dashboards

Over the past few weeks we have been confronted with so many negative images and stories about the financial crisis that it is making me wonder if some of us are spending too much time staring at our dashboard indicators, rather than at the horizon ahead of us?

The secret of successful entrepreneurship is anticipation and adaptability. Anticipation involves keeping your chin up and keeping your eyes wide open, scanning for the best way forward, seizing (if not inventing) opportunities as you see them. Staring at your feet, to where you are right now, will not help you.

We have spent so long looking at our reliable indicators that I think we all have a pretty good indication as to exactly how deep and wide the crisis is and how much bigger it is likely to become? Now is the time to build bridges, to find new ways of avoiding further disaster by looking for creative strategies to forge a new way ahead.

The tools we used to create this crisis are not the same ones that we will need to circumnavigate it or even to kick start the flow of cash again. I can understand that politicians and business leaders do not want to create false hope or be disrespectful for those hardest hit by the current crisis. But we simply must remember that financial crises have come before. Perhaps not as bad, but we know that the first communities to recover are those that accept their reality and adapt to it the soonest. Now is the time to sit with younger minds and to take on board the fact that not only is the world economy fundamentally changing, but so are our business processes.

We are living in a world where many of the most successful and cash rich companies are giving their products away for free! The old rules do not necessarily apply anymore. Sure we have ‘traditional’ businesses that produce essential products for the world to consume, but the leaders of these industries must also look for creative ways to act more locally by using the power of their global information communication systems and trading methods to discover new efficiencies and opportunities. Cost saving on current overheads alone will not inspire the creation of a new frontier.

On Thursday I looked at my Huygens barometer only to notice that the alcohol was reading off the scale (see the image above). Being my normal arrogant self I assumed that this was down to some kind of fault in the apparatus. But then logic kicked in: Huygens barometers can not ‘go wrong’, they have been working accurately for the last two hundred years or more – so what do I conclude? That I am witnessing an extraordinary event, the likes of which almost never happen, I conclude that I am still alive, my house is still standing and my cat is still asleep on the radiator, oblivious to the panic in my head. The reason I do not feel the storm is because I am in the very heart of it, in the centre of the low depression, where the wind is still. On the edge everything is in chaos – the devastation is merciless. Where I am the sun is still shining and everything is calm – now is a good time to think and make plans, knowing that things will change and that I will need to change with them.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The ethics of loyalty

Being loyal to those who pay your fees is not always ethical and for project managers there are times when conflict of interest situations can become quite tricky.
I was talking with two of my MBA students last night and one of them posed me a question about an ethical dilemma he was facing. He asked a simple question:
‘When there are conflicts on a project where should your loyalty lie?’
‘That’s simple’, I replied, ‘your ultimate loyalty is to your customer's shareholders. As a professional you should be looking to supply the best possible solution for your customer, your decisions and influence should be directed accordingly. ’ But then came his second question:
‘But who is my customer? I work for a consulting company that supplies services to the end customer, for whom I am managing the project. Should I be loyal to the shareholders of my employer (the subcontractor) or to the shareholders of their customer?’
The situation (simplified) was that the sub-contractor (his employer) was asking him to play a more active role in ‘bigging up’ the client’s problem; increasing the risk evaluations to create a sense of criticality and to supply a technical solution that would require more services and hardware than might otherwise be needed.
For me, it is still a simple issue: As PM for the end customer, his professional code of ethics should motivate him to advise the end customer as he sees fit and he should not be influenced by the bias of his ‘immediate’ bosses. But I know that this is easier said than done, especially for employees of subcontractors.
I am curious to hear other people’s opinions and stories.
At The Bayard Partnership, we like to pride ourselves on the fact that aim solely to deliver the solution our client's actually need. The solution that ultimately delivers the best share value. Partly because of this, we prefer to supply our services directly whenever we can, or at least via other suppliers that share our fundamental philosophy and principles.
In times of recession the temptation to motivate consultants and PM’s to extract as many man-hours from the customer as possible, may become too big to ignore for some contracting companies, especially those solely focused on short-term profitability. I like to think this is not the case but experience tells me otherwise. Many are afraid of losing revenue and falsely feel that by dragging events out, somehow they will get through. nothing can be further from the truth. In times of recession we need to deliver value for money. Neat solutions to complex issues. Quality, honesty and succinctness will seperate the the long term players from the charlatans.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Torturous Meetings

I am lead to believe that a group of musicians have started an action group to try to prevent the use of their music for torture purposes. When I first heard this I thought that it was a joke, but now I have heard about it from several sources. I tried to imagine it, being tied to chair, forced to listen to Barry Manilow’s Copacabana a thousand times over. So I tried it at home and collapsed half way through the second playing!

The experts claim that being forced to listen to even your favorite music can produced a similar effect. Apparently torturers the world over are, at this very minute, experimenting to find the ultimate musical torture tools. Apparently Witney Houston’s “I will always love you” is high on the list – but I think I can suggest some better ones (should I want to contribute to the perfection of torture).

As a Quaker, I find all kinds of torture absolutely repugnant and I do not want to belittle the problem because apparently this is not a joke and it appears to be very effective. However, sometimes I find attending meetings as a kind of torture. The kind of meetings that have no agenda and apparently no purpose. The kind of meetings where you are invited to attend for your expertise but where you quickly realize that your expertise is the one thing that is not going to help.

I know of a company where people are free to attend meetings as they wish, so if they have nothing to do they can look at the list of meetings for that day and simply ‘drop in’.

Meetings are important and sometimes a very light structure (or apparently no structure at all) can be beneficial – but the important point is: are they effective? Did the brainstorming session produce valuable gems or tedious trivia?

I looked up the definition of the word torture: (apart from the definition to inflict pain to extract information) I discovered: (Collins) 2. ‘To cause mental anguish. Noun.

So there we have it – meetings can be a form of torture!