Business musings

Articles and thoughts about Leadership

01
Oct
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Innovation  Leadership  
Allan MurungiIntroducing guest writer, Allan Murungi

Today, we’re thrilled to introduce a new guest writer to our blog, Allan Murungi. As someone who is studying for an MBA at Warwick Business School, we met Allan at a WBS case study event earlier this year and were instantly impressed with his passion and enthusiasm. In his own words, Allan is an Innovation and Creativity enthusiast, IT Professional, Warwick MBA student, avid book reader and (recently) keen (road bike) cyclist.

The story of IBM’s resurgence during the period 1994 to 1998 is a story of innovation and creativity from the bottom up, started and championed by David Grossman. Grossman’s vision and tenacity resulted in IBM transforming itself from a company that was in decline into an Internet Services firm that rode the wave of e-commerce opportunities to the tune of $20 billion by the end of 1998.

And yet this begs the questions: Who was David Grossman? How did he manage to lead this innovation effort at IBM? And can this innovation and creativity process be replicated?

In organisations, innovation and creativity have traditionally been considered the domains of Chief Executives and other members of the C-suite. The best example of this is perhaps John Chen, formerly of Sybase Inc., who is now leading the turnaround at BlackBerry. As recently as June of this year, BlackBerry has, under his leadership, reported a positive net income of $23 million, up from an $84 million loss during the same period last year.

Innovation and creativity are also generally considered the domain of Research and Development. For instance, the vaunted R&D division of Apple gave us the iPod and iPhone, while Pfizer, the US pharmaceuticals giant, has maintained its dominance through such R&D as developed Viagra.

Where does David Grossman fit in all of this?

During the Winter Olympics of 1994, David Grossman, then described as a midlevel programmer at IBM, sat at home watching the Olympics on TV. As the official technology partner of the Olympics, IBM was responsible for collecting and displaying all the results. This gave the firm the exclusive privilege of displaying the IBM logo at the bottom of the screen, together with an interleaving of IBM ads at regular intervals.

However, upon surfing the Internet, Grossman discovered that Sun Microsystems had set up a rogue Olympics streaming site, complete with the Sun logo and marketing. As such, if someone only had access to this online stream, they would be given the impression that Sun Microsystems was the Winter Olympics’ official sponsor!

Grossman promptly reported this to his superiors, which resulted in IBM’s legal team sending Sun Microsystems a cease-and-desist letter. But Grossman didn’t stop there. He saw the opportunity that the Internet presented and set out to get IBM on board.

First, he set up a demonstration for senior executives in which he showed them exactly what the Web was and the vast potential it held for IBM. This piqued their interest and got their support. Grossman then became the right-hand man to John Patrick, who was present at Grossman’s first demonstration and worked in corporate strategy. Together, they worked on projects to convert IBM’s disparate divisions to the potential of the Web and to design IBM’s first homepage. Grossman and a handful of IBM’s best Web engineers rescued the website that broadcast the chess match between world champion, Gary Kasparov, and IBM Supercomputer, Deep Blue. By the time the Summer Olympics came around in 1996, IBM had built the first ever Olympics website, which also happened to be the world’s largest website at the time. And by 1998, IBM had a huge web presence!

So what does this mean for innovation in your organisation?

Grossman was just a frontline employee. He certainly didn’t have responsibility for innovation and creativity in IBM and he wasn’t part of the strategic planning team. And yet his contribution is credited with enabling IBM to successfully harness the power of the Internet at a critical time, in turn ensuring that the company maximised its potential.

The question then is: Was IBM lucky to have the tenacious and passionate David Grossman on its team?
And the answer is: Absolutely!

Would IBM have got on board with the potential of the internet without him? Maybe/Eventually/Possibly.

Our questions to you then are:

  • What is your innovation and creativity strategy?
  • What are you doing to support and engage your frontline employees in innovation for your company?
  • Are there systems in place to capture the generation of ideas, select the best ones and try them out?
And for those of you who like the research…

The complete story of IBM’s turnaround can be read at Harvard Business Review:
Waking up IBM: how a gang of unlikely rebels transformed Big Blue

06
Dec
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Finance  Innovation  Leadership  Our News  

Are you determined to grow your business? GrowthAccelerator can help you get to the heart of the barriers that are holding your business back, enabling you to identify the critical steps you need to take to achieve your next phase of growth—rapidly and sustainably.

GrowthAccelerator logo

What is GrowthAccelerator?

Launched in May 2012 by Business Secretary Vince Cable, GrowthAccelerator is a partnership between some of the UK’s leading, private sector growth specialists and government, which has already fast-tracked over 10,000 businesses (of which 12% are in the West Midlands).

Supported by coaching, workshops and masterclasses, the service provides a framework to help you:

  • Build a successful growth strategy
  • Discover new routes to funding and investment
  • Unlock your capacity for innovation
  • Harness the power of your people

Whether it’s insight into what’s holding you back and developing a plan for the future, helping you build a case for investment and finding new sources of finance, turning your most innovative ideas into profit, or providing training and masterclasses to develop confident leadership and management, GrowthAccelerator is focused on a single goal: the growth of your business.

How does GrowthAccelerator work?

To begin, GrowthAccelerator will help you review your business’s current position and define a bespoke growth plan specific to its needs. This plan will outline the challenges your business faces and how GrowthAccelerator can offer support, be it through coaching, workshops or masterclasses.

In addition to support from a Growth Manager and Growth Coach, GrowthAccelerator gives you exclusive access of up to £2,000 match-funding per senior manager for your senior management team to hone their leadership and management skills.

You will also become part of the GrowthAccelerator high-growth community, giving you opportunity to meet and network with other liked-minded businesses and growth experts who have already experienced or are experiencing the successes you’ve achieved and the challenges you are facing.

How are we involved?

Matt is a registered and approved Growth Coach for GrowthAccelerator. As a Growth Coach, his role is to work with companies on a one-to-one basis providing relevant and individual support. He will act as an advocate and a catalyst for change. The help you’ll receive with GrowthAccelerator is bespoke and we work with you in a way that is tailored specifically to meet your objectives.

Under the GrowthAccelerator service, we are also able to provide match-funded training for your leadership and senior management team.

Who is GrowthAccelerator for?

Just as we love to work with dynamic and growing companies, GrowthAccelerator is for businesses with ambition, determination and potential. A few other criteria also apply: to be eligible, you must be able to answer yes to all questions below…

  • Is your business registered in the UK?
  • Is your company based in England?
  • Does your business have fewer than 250 employees?
  • Does your business have a turnover of less than £40m?

How much does GrowthAccelerator cost?

Your contribution will depend on the size of your business. With Government making a major contribution towards the cost, you pay only a fixed fee.

A table showing the fees for GrowthAccelerator: 1-4 employees, £600; 5-49 employees, £1,500; 50-249 employees, £3,000; for all size of business an additional £700 VAT is also applicable.

 

 

 

*VAT is based on 20% of the nominal value of the service, at £3,500, so all businesses pay the same amount of VAT.

Should you wish to then also access leadership and management training, match-funding of up to £2,000 per senior manager is exclusively available to your company.

Find out more

If you would like to find out more, why not give us a call on 02476 100 193 or contact us for further information?

To learn more about GrowthAccelerator, you can also visit www.growthaccelerator.com

21
Nov
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Innovation  Leadership  Our News  

For those of you who know us, you’ll know that we blog and tweet (@mattstocker and @debbiestocker); we’re on LinkedIn; we send out regular e-newsletters (in fact, we sent one just today—if you didn’t receive it, sign up here); and we have our own print collateral. We also believe in creative, visual and design thinking. As such, we thought it was about time we joined SlideShare.

Presentations can be a brilliant medium through which to communicate visually and creatively; and to think and communicate via design. Believe me, I’m not talking death by powerpoint here! Rather, I mean presentations that capture the imagination, communicate complex concepts simply, resonate deeply and catalyse action. Whether we can claim any of our presentations do these things, only you, our audience, will be able to tell us. But we hope to embark upon a journey—one in which we learn and continually develop our skills. And one in which we hope you find useful insights that you’re able to apply in the course of your business.

A short guide to organisational ambidexterity

You may remember that Matt wrote an article about organisational ambidexterity some time ago. In this, our first ever contribution to SlideShare, we explore what organisational ambidexterity is, what it means for you, and how you can achieve it.

10 ways a business leaks money like a sieve

Did you know that 75% of new leads never hear back from the business they contacted and office workers are interrupted roughly every 3 minutes? We look at 10 ways that businesses are pouring money down the drain. Find out how your business scores and start plugging the leaks.

Follow us on SlideShare

If you liked these presentations, why not follow us on SlideShare for further updates? Do also feel free to share, like or comment on any of the presentations we upload—we’d love to hear your thoughts. Each presentation is downloadable from SlideShare if you wish to read it offline.

17
May
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Psychology  

A little while ago, I wrote about the need to recognise that every organisation is—in reality—the sum of its people and their individual acts. Recently, I came across a presentation by Joe Leech (User Experience Director of cxpartners) that offered some great insights—albeit from a rather different field.

Entitled Using UX to change company culture, the presentation is focused on web design and the problems of being non-customer focused but, broadly, the same challenges and principles apply to becoming people focused. In the second half of the presentation, Joe offers three suggestions on “what to do” to change company culture; I’ve adopted and built upon these here.

Image shows a screen grab from the final slide of Joe Leech's presentation. The text reads, "Encourage empathy. Humanise your words and approach. Tell stories." The words empathy, humanise and stories are highlighted in blue text, rather than black.

1. Encourage empathy

First and foremost, to truly understand your organisation, you need to empathise with people: employees, customers, partners, suppliers, shareholders and more. Put yourself in their shoes and experience the organisation from their perspective. What works really well and where might there be frustrations? How does your experience of the organisation change when viewed from their standpoint?

Tools such as empathy mapping can help, as can stakeholder engagement. Even when you feel you have a good understanding of a given person’s experience, it is often helpful to ask individuals for their views. Matt and I frequently encourage stakeholder engagement in our client projects and find that sometimes the answers can be surprising. In any empathic exercise, be prepared to really listen, be open minded and put aside any preconceptions you may have. Not only does this foster greater honesty but it also ensures you see the situation as it really is.

In July 2003, IBM conducted what has become known as their Values Jam: a three-day discussion via the corporate intranet about the company’s values. To begin, the comments given by employees were “disturbingly dissonant” and 24 hours in, “at least one senior executive wanted to pull the plug.” Thankfully, Sam Palmisano, CEO at the time, wouldn’t hear of it. To have pulled the plug would have been to deny the reality of employee experience and to ignore valid criticism. Instead, Palmisano listened, empathised and immediately made changes. And it seems to have worked: during Palmisano’s tenure, IBM experienced 21% annual growth in earnings per share and increased its market capitalization to $218 billion.

2. Humanise your words and approach

Rather than focusing on targets, percentages, quotas and the numbers, take time to focus on people. In Playing for keeps (which largely inspired my previous article), Frederick Harmon gives the example of a sales manager’s performance appraisal. Typically such appraisals are focused on measuring performance against numbers but Harmon instead asks:

What if her boss went beyond the numbers? What if he asked her to think about which of her recurring acts had the most power to increase profit? What if he then asked her to find ways to add more value to the way she and her team carried out each of those critical acts? What if they worked out ways together to measure her progress? What if he then regularly reviewed that progress in addition to her numbers every month? Think of the impact on her performance.

In his presentation, Joe Leech also gives a brilliant example from Jack Dorsey (co-founder of both Twitter and Square) who, when asked by Square’s newest Director, Howard Schultz, “Why do you all call your customers ‘users‘?” honestly answered, “I don’t know. We’ve always called them that.” Jack then went on to write a letter to his team explaining that they would be removing the term ‘users’ from their vocabulary and that it should be replaced with ‘customers’ or the more specific ‘buyers’ and ‘sellers’. He writes:

While it might be convenient, “users” is a rather passive and abstract word. No one wants to be thought of as a “user” (or “consumer” for that matter). I certainly don’t. And I wouldn’t consider my mom a “user” either, she’s my mom. The word “user” abstracts the actual individual. This may seem like a small and insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, but the vernacular and words we use here at Square set a very strong and subtle tone for everything we do.

Jack even goes so far as to end with, “If I ever say the word “user” again, immediately charge me $140” (emphasis his).

3. Tell stories

Story telling is a powerful tool to humanise any aspect of your organisation. The quote from Playing for keeps with which I began my last article is a story. It’s a story about the individual acts that together influence next month’s financial statement.

Anecdotes are stories. The tales that are shared over coffee about the latest conversation with a supplier or the most recent email from a colleague can be surprisingly informative. They are also a great way to share your own experience and can provide unexpected business benefit.

In an HBR webinar, Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland shared the example of the call center of a bank which, in an effort to minimise “wasted time,” introduced “non-overlapping coffee breaks” to limit “personal contact and ‘non-essential’ communication.” Rather than bringing benefit, this initiative instead had an adverse effect. Unexpectedly, Pentland’s research team were able to demonstrate that shared coffee breaks allowed employees to disseminate important information about their experiences, which, in turn, enabled staff to improve their performance. As a result, the bank reintroduced overlapping breaks and “saw improved call-handling time, which translated into $15 million per year of savings.” In Pentland’s words:

Informal communication and the exchange of tacit information and best practices proved more valuable than formal team meetings, rules, and incentives.

Stories can also be used with effect in other ways. For example, what does your annual state of the nation report look like? Is it a series of mind-numbing numbers: “Customer complaints have decreased by 20%. Competitors have gained 5% market share. In the next year, we will be increasing departmental efficiency by 16%”? How much more engaging would this presentation be if you instead told a series of stories to illustrate and explain?

In his presentation, Leech gives the example of telling a customer story. Stories are great for understanding your customers and really help you to engage with their needs and situation.

Image shows a screen grab from Joe Leech's presentation. On the left is a photo of a young man with brown hair that looks as though it was taken with a webcam. To the right, a speech bubble shows the words, "I'm a new Dad, my girlfriend has just had a baby. We're trying to buy our first home but we can't get credit. I can't even get a credit card."

Simple stories (such as that illustrated by Leech) are a fantastic place to start but if you want to build a more detailed story, personas can enable a deeper understanding. Stories and personas provide you with a human reference point against which to answer questions such as, “Would this encourage Tony to buy?” or “Will Jill find this easy to use?”.

Since the dawn of man, stories have been a highly effective communication tool—they are easy to remember, evocative, descriptive and empathic. They bring a subject alive and ensure that you talk about real people and real life situations. Increasingly, stories are emerging as a management discipline and, for some, storytelling is seen as a key leadership competency for the 21st century.

Over to you

How could you further humanise your organisation? Your business is already its people but do you see it that way? Are you distracted by the numbers, stuck in a language rut or fearful of hearing what others really want to say?

I’ve offered three suggestions here but there will be many more approaches that you could take—I’m sure you’ll even have ideas of your own. Today, dare to open your eyes and to really see the people around you. Who knows what you’ll find—you may just uncover the true source of your organisation’s potential.

15
Mar
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Business Excellence  Leadership  Performance Improvement  

Do What You Say You Will Do When You Say You Will Do It

Also known as…

DWYSYWD WYSYWDI

I know, you’re looking at this thinking, “That’s an entirely unmemorable acronym!” and I agree. It’s completely forgettable and unpronounceable in fact! Except, the person who introduced me to this acronym was one of my university lecturers who also happened to be Welsh. So, when he first wrote the acronym on the board, we all assumed he was writing in Welsh! But, for all its superficial forgetableness, the unusual nature of the acronym has enabled me to remember it all these years later.

So why am I introducing dwysywd wysysdi to you now?

On the surface, dwysywd wysywdi looks rather innocuous. What’s the worst that happens if you don’t dwysywd wysywdi? Nothing? No big deal,right? In reality, when you don’t dwysywd wysywdi, it’s rare that nothing happens. Generally a lot happens—but it’s probably not the stuff you want to! From people losing trust in you, to customers walking away, to losing that promotion. Dwysywd wysywdi is a critical skill in all areas of life. (more…)

27
Nov
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Psychology  

Picture in your mind a large, American manufacturing company. Here is their story…

[A group of experienced] managers sit in [a] meeting. Out on the plant floor, production on the new line stopped more than an hour ago. R&D and production are waiting for the managers to get a decision on that small mistake hidden somewhere in the specifications. In the office, a secretary is typing an overdue proposal for new business. In her hurry, she mistypes “Mr.” instead of “Ms.” The company will lose the job. Also lost will be more than 40 hours of preparation time.

With the managers tied up in their meeting, their overworked associates are bouncing a prospective customer around on the telephone. Asked by the third person to “please hold,” he is thumbing through his telephone directory looking for the name of a competitor. The company’s top sales producer, furious over the lack of prompt support from the back office, has declared a Mental Health Day. He’s working on his putting at the golf course. He can afford it. The company cannot.

None of these small acts—or hundreds of others like them—will appear on next month’s statement of financial results. They will not appear in the budget or in the managers’ performance appraisals. Yet together they form an invisible sieve, draining profit dollar by dollar.

Happily, hundreds of other equally small acts are accumulating profits. A sales representative drove 135 miles this morning to deliver a replacement part to a customer. Sometime next year, the customer will place an extra order. In the back office, three secretaries are meeting informally to balance their work so they can meet their deadlines. This cooperation gets three customer inquiries handled a day early and convinces the senior secretary to turn down another job. Replacing her would have cost $6,000 above budget in temp and recruitment costs.

Harry in maintenance has just uncovered a potential problem with machine number 3. He’s installing a $38 part that will avoid a $12,000 replacement plus three weeks of downtime this summer. Chris is training recruits on safety procedures. Accidents that won’t happen will lower next year’s insurance costs. Mary’s careful review of accounts receivable uncovers an invoicing error that will mean $950 in extra revenue.

Like their negative counterparts, none of these acts—or hundreds of others like them—will appear on next month’s statement. They will not surface in the budget or in the managers’ performance appraisals. Yet together they form an invisible bank account, collecting profit dollar by dollar.

I love the above quote. Taken from Playing for keeps by Frederick Harmon, it masterfully tells the story of the humanity that is foundational to every organisation around the globe. Whether big or small, for-profit or not-for-profit, multinational or local, startup or mature, every organisation is—in reality—the sum of its people and their individual acts.

Although we understand this perspective intuitively, all too often our organisations take on a life of their own. Brands have identities and personalities. Businesses become corporate entities. Organisations have moral and ethical responsibilities. Firms experience growth, maturity, rebirth and death—some are even seeking the key to eternal youth! Companies anticipate, adapt and recover. And organisations have views, attitudes, outlooks and opinions.

Photograph of a brown and white springer spaniel wearing a red collar and sitting in the garden on grey flagstones

As an owner of a springer spaniel and two cats, I’m familiar with the tendency to anthropomorphise our pets—Matt and I do it on a regular basis! Jess is happy, grumpy, jealous, naughty, worried, friendly, and she very definitely loves us!—can you see she’s smiling in the picture?!

In the same way—whether we work for them, consume their products or services, or simply have an opinion on them—we all emphatically anthropomorphise our organisations.

I have no problem with anthropomorphism as a pet owner and I believe it is an important and useful device in business. However, an awareness of our tendency toward it is vital.

Day in, day out, we read our organisations by the collective characteristics we endow them with. Our organisation is innovative, forward-thinking, ambitious and visionary. Or maybe it is stuffy, oppressive, backward and uncaring. What we actually mean by this is that as a group of people we have created a culture, brand, department or company that could be described as having these collective attributes.

Although it is necessary and important to form collective representations of our organisations, we must remain aware that these representations do not exist as concrete realities but are instead symbolic identities. Even within stakeholders of a single organisation, differing opinions will be found: some perceive Tesco as providing great value for money, others see it as an uncaring, corporate behemoth.

And even beyond our own perceptions, we can easily fall into the trap of treating other symbols, abstractions and representations as substantive. Balance sheets and key performance indicators, for example. “Surely those are more objective?” I hear you ask. Harmon would argue they are not:

All management meetings begin with the numbers. The numbers are the single best indicator of how the business is doing. The numbers are so real. So real, it’s hard to remember they are abstractions, macro reflections of the quality of thousands of individual acts.

When well-executed acts significantly exceed poorly executed acts, the numbers “look good.” When poor exceeds good, they “look bad.” Look is the right word. The numbers are always images of reality, never reality itself.

Such images and the organisational entities we relate to are in fact the result of a multitude of individual and collective decisions, cognitions, communications and actions. As Joe Leech (User Experience Director of cxpartnersobserves, “Data dehumanises”.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not for one second saying that the use of representations is wrong—in fact, I’m a strong advocate of key performance indicators, metrics, brand identities and the like—but we do need to look beyond these.

At the end of the day, the foundation of any organisation is us. People. Humans. Individuals and groups. In the words of Harmon, “The small individual act is the basic cell of all performance. Everything we call management ends there.”

We need to remember this as we interact with our companies. Frequently, Matt and I emphasise the importance of considering the bigger picture; in this instance, I’m asking you to instead zoom in from the macro to consider the individual.

In an organisation that is struggling with a negative culture, what are the differences within that culture? Who stands out at as a light in the darkness? Why is their attitude and behaviour different? Is the negativity truly organisational or are there subtle differences between departments, teams and individuals? What can you learn from these differing responses?

Take sales figures as another example. Over the last few years, it has been easy to blame any financial downturn upon the recession, but are there subtle differences if you dig beneath the numbers on your spreadsheets? Is one customer segment more loyal than another? Does a single customer bring you more referrals than any other? Why? What are the differences and what can you learn from them?

Such a perspective is vital at all levels within an organisation but, for leaders, it is of particular importance. In the words of Harmon, “In any serious analysis, managers manage neither results nor numbers. They manage the quality of individual acts.”

Leaders in particular need to be able to identify the subtle differences within a collective and capitalise upon them. What is it that your leading sales representative does differently that he or she could teach others? Are efficiencies and inefficiencies the result of processes and technology or are there unnoticed individual acts that contribute to overall effectiveness? Is team performance reflective of ability or, in reality, does one team display more effective communication patterns than another? For any leader and the techniques that they use, “their power to generate constructive change lies in their capacity to direct or redirect individual small acts.”

So, next time you’re pouring over a spreadsheet, analysing your target market or in the midst of a leadership meeting, take a moment to step into the detail—to consider the individual and their unique acts. You might just discover something surprising. You will certainly add value to your management. And you will definitely unlock the true source of your organisational capabilities.

And for those of you who like the research…

Harmon, F.G. (1996). Playing for keeps. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

In February 1991, when British Rail claimed “the wrong kind of snow” was to blame for disruption to their services, the UK media had a field day! Surely snow was just snow? From an engineering perspective however, British Rail had a point—not all snow is created equal.

This snow was light, fluffy, and apparently entirely unsuitable for our rail system. It wasn’t deep enough for snow ploughs and it got in places that it shouldn’t, resulting in jammed mechanisms and shorted circuits. Emergency timetables were put in place and long delays on the rail network were the order of the day.

All time is not created equal

When it comes to strategic development and building tomorrow’s success, not all time is created equal either. Too much of the wrong kind of time is likely to stop an organisation in its strategic development tracks, resulting in long delays and a failure to create tomorrow’s business.

Many organisations run primarily on maintenance time, responding to what is required right now. Their focus is on today: what needs doing, who needs responding to, and where the next sale is coming from. Head down, just get on with it. Although such time is necessary for day-to-day operations, when it comes to strategic development, maintenance time is the wrong kind of time.

With maintenance time, strategic development just will not happen. Something more important, more urgent, more now will always appear. And the more your organisation only runs on maintenance time, the more urgent everything will become! Maintenance time will, at best, result in small, incremental improvements; more often than not, it just maintains the status quo. Longer term, operating only on this kind of time will certainly result in strategic neglect.

A different kind of time

Strategic development needs a different kind of time. It can’t run on urgent, ‘now’ time. It needs a calmer, ‘development’ kind of time. It needs the kind of time that enables you to calmly look ahead and to see beyond what exists at this instant. To look towards what might exist or what could be created in the future, without worrying about that urgent email or phonecall. It steps away from today to look at how best to build your organisation and its capabilities for tomorrow.

Development time won’t happen by accident and it won’t just magically appear some day. You need to create it. Shut the door on everything else and focus. You need to extricate yourself from the urgent and look around. As a business, you need to take time out to reconsider and examine where you are headed, your broader environment, your competitors, your processes, your business model.

Become self-aware and mindful. Where do you want to be and how would you like to get there? What needs creating that doesn’t currently exist? What could be done better? What needs to go? What needs to be developed? You need to encourage your staff to ask the same questions. To ask, “Is this the best way of doing this?” To take time out. To step away for a moment to spend time on tomorrow.

In doing this, you will develop an organisation that takes responsibility for actively creating tomorrow and that is not just maintaining today. An organisation that has a strategic capability. A conqueror instead of a zombie.

How and when you decide to take this time is up to you but it does need to happen. Dare to escape the office. To turn off your phone. To leave your emails for another day. And please don’t leave this time until it’s urgent, because by then you may find that it’s just too late!

24
Aug
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Strategic Planning  Technology & Web  

Earlier this month, I was contacted by Yisi Lu, a Masters student in MSc Marketing & Strategy at Warwick Business School. For her dissertation, Yisi is considering design thinking and, in particular, its role in education. She asked me some very interesting questions and I would love to share my answers with you today.

To explain a little of my own interest in design thinking…

I tend to live with one foot firmly in both business and design. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that my graduate studies first began at Coventry University where I completed the first year of an M/Des BSc in Industrial Product Design. While I love design, I gradually realised that what really interested me was the strategic management and business of design.  In 2001, I therefore transferred to Warwick Business School to study their BSc Hons in Management Sciences (now known as Management).

Both business and design remain my passions. Much of my spare time is spent reading technical and design blogs. An A3 pad is a firm fixture in my note-taking armoury and something with which clients will be familiar. I was privileged to attend the 2012 Design Summit earlier this year. I’m a strong advocate of the collaboration between the Design Council and WBS. And, on a lighter note, Debbie will happily recount times that she has lost me in a store only to find me looking at the construction of their shelves!

All in all, Debbie and I work hard to integrate design and business throughout our approach to consultancy. We believe that, particularly in this day and age, the two are firmly intertwined and an integrated approach offers much greater value than one or other alone.

Question One

What do you think is the essence of “design thinking” and how does it lead to better education?

For me, there is not one single thing that defines or is design thinking. Certainly, design thinking is about creation and it always involves a symbiotic relationship between problem and solution. However, part of the essence of design thinking is its synthesis of a multitude of elements; you could say that design thinking is many or all of the following things…

A solutions-based process. Creative. Iterative. Agile. Responsive. Holistic. Needs focused. User focused. Visual. It employs feedback loops, prototyping and testing. It involves creative synthesis. Design thinking holds all elements and ideas in creative tension before a solution emerges. It is about broadening out and narrowing down; zooming in and zooming out. Design thinking ‘stores’ work and solutions visually whilst they are in process to ensure that previous iterations can be referred back to, learned from, revised and improved. People who employ design thinking are not afraid of failure or mistakes—they will often do something deliberately ‘wrong’ to find what could be right; they accept that solutions rarely emerge ‘right first time’. Design thinking explores the whole system and encourages people to step outside of the ‘problem’ in order to discover whether the broader environment is the real source of the issue. It encourages people to look at the bigger picture. It handles complexity without drowning; synthesizes knowledge and understanding; and looks for patterns and links between non-related elements. It frequently employs ideas from other sources, cultures and disciplines. Design thinking is playful and curious. It actively involves people and stakeholders; it is a collaborative process that looks both out and in. Design thinking always demands a clear brief.

With regard to education, design thinking moves people away from a narrow view that is based on their existing knowledge and personal opinions, toward a more expansive, curious, multidisciplinary perspective. It allows people to create and form ideas and solutions in a more creative and flexible way. Design thinking encourages students to look at the world differently. It helps them to understand that, with a defined brief, it is almost always possible to discover an effective solution, even if that solution takes time and numerous ‘failed’ attempts. It moves students away from a linear, analytical, detail-oriented approach toward a more creative, open perspective—away from believing “We first need to know everything about this problem to find an answer” to asking “How do we create a solution, even in the midst of ambiguity?” For me, this is more representative of situations within real-life organisations: often problems and solutions emerge together; the implementation of interventions informs both a further understanding of the problem and its solution; more often than not problems and solutions are continually being worked on in parallel. Design thinking enables students to better listen and engage with those around them. It teaches them to be creative in thought: by learning how to visually represent thoughts and ideas, students add another dimension to their problem solving approach. Many problems, models and ideas are not linear and do not lend themselves to being defined with the lined notepaper approach. Similarly, complex situations often involve many interdependent problems that cannot be solved individually. Use of visual tools enables a shared understanding to be created; it draws people together to debate and create solutions or outcomes that otherwise would remain opaque and poorly understood.

If I had to sum it up more succinctly, design thinking in education is about equipping students with an array of tools that enable them to deal much more effectively with complex situations; teaching them to embrace curiosity and failure; and opening their minds to new ways of thinking and doing.

Question Two

What do you think is the nature of a design thinking process?

There are many potential processes and theories that could be used to define the nature of the design thinking process; however, to get to hung up on defining the process itself is to miss the point.

A design thinking process is about creation. Making and doing. Testing and breaking. Seeing and responding.

Designers have done it for centuries. It starts with an idea, a brief, a desired outcome. The designer then starts to create and, in order to do so, they must pull together ideas and get a better understanding of the challenges that stand in their way. They must implement ideas to see if they work and, also, to discover if they and others like them.

The designer is happy with uncertainty because the process of creation is often messy, unpredictable and, at times, frustrating. However, they drive through towards their goal. They like an idea but then find it doesn’t work. They do more research; they look at other options; they push boundaries. The designer turns around and examines those problems that stand in their way—they look at them from a different perspective; they need to find out if the problems vanish or change when viewed from a different standpoint.

During the process, the designer will sometimes work on their own; at other times, they will open up the process to others—to users, to staff, to colleagues, to the people around them.

Sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly, the designer will arrive at a solution, the end outcome. The solution may be an amalgamation of a number of ideas. Sometimes, a single moment of insight may finally bring the answer.

And yet, however good the outcome, however great, it could be better. The designer may need materials or technology to catch up with what is in their mind’s eye—their ideas are not yet possible with today’s tools. Or, they may learn everything they should do or should have done differently once their completed piece ends up in the marketplace.

All in all, the design thinking process is about a journey from start to finish; from problem to solution; from idea to implementation. But this journey is not linear. It is iterative, recursive and looping. It could take hours or it could take years. But it is always a journey toward a desired objective, travelled with grit, determination and an open mind.

Question Three

What do you think is the best way for universities to teach design? (Should design schools create more business-focused creatives, or should business schools foster creative thinking in their MBAs?)

Ultimately, design thinking is about creation—of ideas, of products, of solutions, of outcomes. And yet, much of the university or business school approach is about the opposite—breaking things down, taking them apart, analysing, critiquing. Always the critic, never the creator.

I am a strong advocate of critical thinking and would never negate its value. However, while theoretical and case-based learning are a vital part of the business school education, I have noticed that students are often not very good at creating. There is a disconnect between their role and that of others—creating is left to ‘the creatives’. Students have rarely experienced the design process for themselves. Few students have ever created a brand; designed a website; designed or created a product, service or a building; created something out of nothing. And yet, in business, the only way that an organisation exists and survives is if it actually creates value; creates a product or a service; creates a market; creates demand. We teach students how to get the most out of what they have but never really to create something new. We leave that to chance, hoping that their innate creativity and drive will enable them to do this on their own. In this sense, we let both our students and their future employers down.

Design schools themselves are however often no better. They teach their students how to create but not how to truly exploit their creations. Creatives and designers can often be left floundering in a business world they do not really understand. They lack the management skills to bring their creations to life and to capitalise upon the value they know their creations contain. They do not know how to build a business structure around their creative process.

The obvious solution would be to bring business people and creatives together. However, with both failing to understand the other, tension begins to emerge. Designers and creatives are reluctant to relinquish business control for fear of what will happen to their creative direction; business people are unable to truly support a creative process they do not fully understand.

This is compounded by the fact that neither business nor design schools teach their students how to manage others in the creation/design process and how to get the best out of those who may ultimately work for them. Gerry McGovern (Design Director of Land Rover) has strong views on this and believes that nobody teaches either business people or designers how to manage other designers and creatives to get the best out of the creative process. Similarly, creatives are rarely taught how to manage their commercial employees to best capitalise upon their creative ideas.

So, in the middle exists this divide. With business people having little or no design, creative and visual literacy, and designers having little or no business literacy, there is a missed opportunity to create real value.

Thinking about organisational ambidexterity, it seems that we find ourselves in a situation in which design schools are teaching their students to explore, whilst business schools are teaching their students to exploit. In reality, as is the case in organisations, students must have the ability to do both—to explore and exploit—for real, long-term value to be released.

Ultimately, I believe it is the responsibility of both design schools and business schools to bridge this divide. Business schools should be embracing design thinking across their programmes, not only at MBA level, but also within their Undergraduate and Masters courses. Design schools should similarly be teaching their students (at all levels) about the commercialisation process and how to exploit the value within their creations.

Question Four

What do you think is the future of design thinking?

I believe there is a strong future for design thinking. With the recent and continuing economic environment, along with the diminished reputations of those who helped create it, the analytical approach has been shown to have significant weaknesses when it comes to solving global issues and discovering appropriate answers. As a result, we are seeing a move toward different approaches, both in how to create real value and also in solving problems. The Singularity University is one such example of how to embrace a multidisciplinary, creative approach. Although design thinking is certainly not the only alternative approach, I believe it is gaining increasing awareness, in part through those higher educational establishments that teach it.

Interestingly, within consultancy, clients also seem to be realising the limitations of the analytical approach and are increasingly resistant to, and jaded by, consultancies that charge high fees, do a lot of analysis, but, at the end of the day, fail to deliver effective solutions and outcomes that create real, practical value where it matters, on the ground. As a result, clients seem to be particularly open to value-based pricing, where the outcomes are clear and the costs are fixed. We ourselves have found that such an approach is hugely effective in facilitating design thinking and a solutions-led approach. As the objectives are clearly defined (the brief), along with measures of success and the value that the outcomes will bring, there is a clarity that rarely exists otherwise. There is also significant flexibility to embrace the complexity and creativity needed to solve the trickiest problems, without worrying about day rates or utilisation. The end outcome: fair compensation for the consultant and a great outcome for the client.

Similarly, in our own experience, design thinking opens up solutions to a multitude of problems that seem intractable with traditional business approaches. Visual problem solving and creative thinking enables simplicity to emerge beyond complexity and solutions to be found.

Moreover, while scientific and theoretical breakthroughs will continue to drive change, many of the most influential breakthroughs of the last century have been design-oriented in nature. Think the automobile, the home computer, mobile phones, the iPod, iPad, and more. Design is literally changing our lives, the way we think and the way we live. Many of the most influential and successful businesses in the world today have, at their heart, design. Their success is not due to either design or business alone but a healthy symbiosis of the two. People are increasingly recognising the power of design and embracing its success. This year alone within Britain, the Design Council hosted the Design Summit 2012; The Founders Forum hosted the Creative Industries reception; the British Business Embassy hosted the Global Business Summit (focused on creative services); various UK Trade & Investment regions hosted Creative Services Summits; the Olympics showcased British creativity and design; and MADE Entrepreneur Festival is focusing on businesses made in Britain, many of which are creative. There seems to be an increasing move toward supporting creative and design-led businesses and design thinking is fundamental to this future.

That said, for design thinking to be truly embraced in academia, I believe there needs to be a change in attitudes. Design thinking by its very nature is often very accessible and can be easily embraced by the populace. It also tends to dislike words. Historically, academia has tended to shun that which appears simplistic, even if at its heart it is rooted in research and grounded in experience. Similarly, design itself has not traditionally had a strong relationship with peer-reviewed journals nor has it taught or encouraged a critical, scientific approach. Gradually both sides of this situation are changing and multidisciplinary approaches are being embraced but such change will need to continue if there is to be a true meeting of minds between business and design.

31
May
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Business Excellence  Leadership  

 

Cars don’t end up on the scrap heap by accident. The rust that started as a couple of specks over the wheel arches. The chipped windscreen that was never repaired or replaced. The engine that hasn’t been serviced in years.

These cars have owners who, like Penny, decided they’d take what they could get from the car now without thinking about the value it could give them in the future—if they just looked after it a little better.

The decision may not have been a conscious one and the driver was happy as long as the car started each morning and got them to where they needed to be. Until, of course, the occasional cough, splutter and engine complaint turned into a hefty bill from the garage or, at worst, a failure to start every single day! A car that once held value and purpose has suddenly become a car useful only for parts.

The thing is, the organisational equivalent of this is happening up and down the country every single day. These organisations still work. They still start up every morning. But check engine lights are on.

The loss of a long-standing and loyal customer. Failure to win a new contract. High staff turnover or increasing absence.

But the organisation still works, so why should anybody worry?

Companies, management teams, and staff sometimes focus so much on starting the business every morning, they forget the organisation itself needs a little bit of tender loving care.

Gradually, the strength of a business model weakens, the market shifts, the brand becomes outdated, and the proposition gets muddied.

Eventually, a competitor draws alongside your rusty, clunky, unreliable business with their sleek, polished and purring motor, and you realise with horror that you can no longer compete. As they pull away, your organisation is smoked and left for dust.

Although Sheldon is known for his pedanticism, in the case of the check engine light he has a point. Several episodes later, Penny says: “The check engine light is fine. It’s still blinking away. It’s the stupid engine that stopped working! It cost me almost $1,200 to fix it!”

Don’t be Penny within your organisation. Decide to keep up with technology. Ensure your strategy and business model remain effective. Make good use of effective performance measures to spot trouble before it starts. Have a strong vision. Invest in your people. Develop your products, service and brand.

Do this and your organisation will remain competitive for the long haul. The Sheldon’s of this world will never be able to say, “Did you once again ignore your check engine light?” and you will never repeat the immortal words of Penny, “No, Mr. smarty-pants. I ignored the fill gas tank light!”

21
May
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Performance Improvement  Psychology  

Last week, I wrote about how nothing breeds success like failure but ended on a crucial question: How? How do we affirm failure correctly and effectively? How do we encourage perseverance and daring? How do we embrace failure and turn it into success?

My reading around failure has uncovered several suggestions and I would love to add a few of my own.

1. Stop the denial

Failure happens—fact! You will fail; if not today, then tomorrow, next month or next year. Your failure may be big or small, catastrophic or common, but the one thing I can guarantee is that you will experience it.

We need to stop hiding from failure, avoiding it and denying it. As individuals and organisations, it’s ok to admit failure and to put it right. Starbucks has even adopted this as part of their customer service ethos: “Your drink should be perfect, every time. If not, let us know and we’ll make it right.”

At a deeper level, we also need to “acknowledge that some people—even ambitious people, smart people, talented people, tenacious people, good people—experience failures that turn out to be more than mere bumps on the road to success.”

Before we can turn around failure of any form, we must “strive for transparency,” both within our organisations and in the interactions we have with one another.

2. Disown failure as an individual identity

Did you know that in 18th century English, failure as an identity did not exist in our language? Scott Sandage points out that “the usage ‘he is a failure’ or ‘I feel like a failure’ was unknown; people spoke of going into business and ‘making a failure of it’. The striver was still responsible for paying for (and learning from) his own mistakes—but the shop or the counting house was the failure, not the person.”

Such depersonalisation makes failure much easier to face. It also enables objectivity and more effectively facilitates learning. Further, this perspective is a much closer reflection of the truth. We rarely fail entirely alone or entirely through our own fault—usually, circumstance is much more complex than that.

3. Exempt ourselves and others from the obligation to succeed

Closely related to failure as an identity is the pressure to succeed. Real or perceived pressure to ensure that we don’t let others down, disappoint or fail to meet expectations. None of us should be living in fear of the consequences of our failure for, if this is the case, we will never have the courage to try.

Those who experience failure can be ostracised and may experience emotions such as shame and humiliation. High profile failures, such as that of Gerald Ratner, reveal the stigma that can be attached to failure. For some the effect of this stigma is extreme. A study on the relationship between debt and suicide in Japan showed that some consider suicide preferable to their financial failure—in one 52-year old debtor’s words: “Bankruptcy means you’re a loser for life.”

Although it is inevitable that certain failures will, and should have, consequences, we need to ensure that these consequences are not permanent and nor are they terminal. We need to create a culture in which failure does not engender blame and retribution but that consequences are fair and representative of the action.

Similarly, we need to take down the pedestals upon which we place others and accept that they, like us, will fall. Second, third, fourth, or even one hundredth chances should be available to all.

4. Set realistic expectations

Success is rarely instantaneous but, in a culture that craves instant gratification and “admire[s] instant…effortless brilliance,” this is all too easy to forget.

We need to recognise that success takes time and there will be failures along the way. As organisations and as individuals, we need to set realistic expectations about what is is possible to achieve. In the words of Aza Raskin, former Creative Lead for Firefox, “Your first try will be wrong. Budget and design for it.”

5. Understand the failure spectrum

As I mentioned in my last article, failure is nuanced. At one end of the spectrum is failure that forms “an essential part of a [learning] process” but at the other is failure with “dark” and catastrophic consequences. We need to be able to recognise the different types of failure and employ effective strategies for each.

Within our organisations, we need to create processes, systems, cultures and budgets that allow for and encourage “intelligent” failure.

However, where catastrophic or abject failure is a risk, multiple failsafes should be built in. All too often, “individuals can be quite adept at picking up on hints of failure in the making [but] organisations typically fail to process and act on their warnings.” Such failure is not to be encouraged. At whatever point on the spectrum failure lies, “leaders…must shape cultures that are open both to the possibility of failure and the need to learn when problems do occur.”

6. Create a learning culture

I love this tip from Richard Watson on Fast Company: “Try to fail as often as possible but never make the same mistake twice.” We need to create organisational cultures that both accept and learn from failure. Prototyping, agile methodologies, even basketball or piano practice, do not involve doing the same thing over and over again. Rather, they require that we “learn from [our] failure and try again differently.”

We also need to ensure that we learn from our failures as quickly as possible. Aza Raskin tells the story of Paul MacCready’s efforts to solve the problem of human-powered flight. Whilst others were spending upwards of a year building planes that were destroyed within a matter of minutes and could not easily be rebuilt, MacCready set out to “build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months.” Such an approach enabled him to rapidly iterate and the “relearn cycle went from months and years to hours and days.” Suffice to say, it was MacCready’s planes that claimed Henry Kremer’s rewards for turning his dream of flight into reality.

7. Dare to do things the wrong way

Sometimes, in order to achieve success, we need to dare to do things wrong. Sir James Dyson suggests “initiat[ing] a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path.” In creating the Dyson vacuum cleaner, the conventionally shaped cyclone simply wouldn’t work; it was only when Dyson tried “the wrong shape” that he discovered his key to success. “It was wrong-doing rather than wrong-thinking. That’s not easy, because we’re all taught to do things the right way.”

Alberto Alessi describes this as “danc[ing] on the borderline between success and disaster.” He points out however that “working close to the borderline is very risky, because you cannot see it with your eyes. It is not clearly drawn or marked. You can only feel it by using sensibility and intuition…One step more, and you risk falling into the not-possible area.” Dare to do things the wrong way but do so wisely.

8. Aim for fallure not failure

In Hitting the vertical wall: realizing that vertical limits aren’t, Jim Collins tells the story of attempting to complete an on-sight climb of a route known as the Crystal Ball. A challenging climb, Collins found himself exhausted only three moves away from the crystal. He gave up and let go. In his words, he “failed in [his] mind.”

Learning from his disappointment, Collins went on to discover what he has coined climbing to “fallure, not failure”. When climbing to fallure, you may still fall but you do not choose to do so. Mentally and physically, you give it your all, until either you conquer the rockface or it conquers you.

Collins applies this idea to life and to business. “Going to fallure in life is scary, but not dangerous. Whether it be starting a business or publishing a book or trying an exciting new design, fallure rarely means doom. And most important, [fallure is] the only way to find your true limit.”

9. Know when to quit and when to push on through

Closely related to fallure is the need to know when to quit and when to push on through. Seth Godin talks about the idea of “the dip”—the slog that occurs between learning and mastery. Often such dips need to be beaten and perseverance will lead to success. However, what looks like a dip can also be a “dead end.” We need to be able to recognise the difference.

Similarly, fallure should be used wisely and must be combined with our understanding of the failure spectrum and its risks. Collins later relates the story of the time he convinced another, less experienced climber, to continue climbing a cliff named Cynical Pinnacle even though a storm was approaching. His partner’s rope lodged in a crack and they found themselves trapped “with the temperature in the fifties and dropping, [and] facing a full early-spring front.” Fortunately, both men lived to climb another day but it should be said that continuing to fallure in the midst of a perilous and dangerous situation is sheer folly.

10. Learn the skills to handle failure

Daniel Ostrower, in a comment on Jamer Hunt’s article, pointed out that a “special set of skills (both emotional and intellectual) is required to diagnose and learn from failure.” He argues that, “Not everyone can do it, and even those that can will have more difficulty in certain situations than others.” While I agree that handling failure can be difficult, I wonder whether it is possible to learn skills that would enable us to handle it more effectively. Through studies, such as that of Life after business failure, we can begin to understand the processes that occur and uncover strategies for dealing with failure more effectively.

It should also be said that learning from failure is a process. Business failure involves loss and the psychological effects of such have been likened to those of grief. Just as grieving is a process, so is recovering from failure. Failure can be painful and we need to allow ourselves “time to recover from the hurt”. Only when we have done this, can we engage in “critical reflection,” examining the reasons for the failure and learning to move beyond them.

Michael Jordan—a final word

To return to where we began this journey, Michael Jordan has had astounding success but it has been founded on hard work, dedication, perseverance and failure. In another famous Nike advert, he says:

Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I led you to believe it was easy when it wasn’t…Maybe it’s my fault that you didn’t see that failure gave me strength—that my pain was my motivation. Maybe I led you to believe that basketball was a God-given gift and not something I worked for—every single day of my life.

Maybe I destroyed the game.

Or maybe, you’re just making excuses.

 

 

Michael Jordan was never shooting to lose but that didn’t mean he never missed. We need to dare to fail in order to succeed. As organisations and as individuals, if we allow ourselves to be paralysed by our fear of missing, we will never take the shot that wins or loses us the game.

What can you dare to fail at today?

And for those of you who like the research…

Collins, J. (2003). Hitting the wall: realizing that vertical limits aren’t. Jim Collins

Hunt, J. (2011). Among six types of failure, only a few help you innovate. Fast Co.Design

McGregor, J. (2007). Gospels of failure. Fast Company

Raskin, A. (2012). You are solving the wrong problem. Aza Raskin

Salter, C. (2007). Failure doesn’t suck. Fast Company

Salter, C. (2007). Failure doesn’t suck – part 2. Fast Company

Sandage, S.A. (2012). Get back in the saddle. Times Higher Education

Ucbasaran, D., Shepherd, D., Lockett, A. & Lyon, J. (2012). Life after business failure: the process and consequences of business failure for entrepreneurs. CSME Working Paper.

Watson, R. (2008). Celebrate failure. Fast Company

West, M. (2003). Dying to get out of debt: consumer insolvency law and suicide in Japan. The John M. Olin Center for Law & Economics Working Paper Series, 03-015.

Wylie, I. (2007). Failure is glorious. Fast Company