Monday, 30 March 2009
One champion for change was the 19th Century politician Samuel Plimsoll. His interest was in shipping, and in particular safety. He researched, wrote and campaigned to make marine safety a priority. He even got himself elected to the House of Commons in order to become more effective in his campaign.
Friday, 27 March 2009
And don’t we find such rich and varied ways of getting interrupted? Email popping into our inbox which has to be checked straight away. Or checking our inbox even though nothing has popped in, just in case? A colleague (or friend) popping up on instant messaging just to catch up? What should be two minutes turns into half an hour because (a) IM is so slow as a way to communicate and (b) such a funny thing happened to them on the way in to work.
Then there is checking someone’s updated profile on LinkedIn, Plaxo, Facebook and the rest. And of course we have to make sure our own profiles are up to date. Thanks for our friends at Twitter we now have the mother of all distractions – a whole room full of people Tweeting about what’s caught their attention. Fascinating, but so distracting – links to follow, people to follow, time to twitter away.
Each time we get interrupted from our original work task it takes anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours to get back to what we were doing. 2 hours!!!
Now once in a while it’s not going to harm, but the problem with these distractions is that they are not occasional, they are daily, hourly, minute by minute. They are a constant pull away from what we should be focusing on.
The solutions are not rocket science:
1. Turn email off and only check it periodically. I try this from time to time but find I need information that is stored in my email, so it can get turned on again quite soon. For the short periods I manage to keep it turned off, though, it does help.
2. Turn off instant messaging while working on a task. Or only turn it on in the afternoon. This one has no downsides and lots of productivity upsides.
3. Note down start and stop times when working on a task. I use this a lot and find it effective and wrote about it in Boosting Personal Productivity. This makes me super-aware of the time I spend on a work task or the time I take out to check a favourite blog. I use my trusty stopwatch but know its a little eccentric.
4. Work on a clear desk. My sister once bought me some post-it notes that said “My desk may be cluttered, but my mind is empty”. Enough said.
The wonderful, wonderful book Life’s a Pitch by Stephen Bayley & Roger Mavity tells the story of pitching for the Volvo account. They had 8 weeks to put together a winning presentation and after 6 weeks had got nowhere. Rather than redouble efforts for the last 2 weeks, they took the first week to make everyone clear their desks of anything other than Volvo work. For the second week they went to a hotel and did nothing but Volvo work. Of course – because it’s in the book, they won the account. But what a clever and brave strategy.
What's your favourite tip for staying focused and improving performance - either personally or as a team?
Tuesday, 24 March 2009
You might know the piece I’m talking about – it’s called “
It’s supposed to be ironic, but that’s missed on me. I just think it’s a great list. So if you don’t already know it – here are their 10 points:
- Do one thing at a time
- Know the problem
- Learn to listen
- Learn to ask questions
- Distinguish sense from nonsense
- Accept change as inevitable
- Admit mistakes
- Say it simple
- Be calm
Monday, 23 March 2009
History throws up some monumentally bad decisions that serve as a reminder to us all that smart people sometimes get things spectacularly wrong.
Deciding to launch the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986 even though a good number of people knew there were problems was not one of NASA’s finest hours. Televised live to a huge audience it was a massive set back to their work, and a tragic loss to the families of all those on board.
Yet what impresses me about NASA is its openness. It has an online database of lessons learnt which is there for anyone to inspect. It has very detailed findings by engineers as well as some of the larger and more significant lessons. I have no doubt that as public-facing data it is less frank and less complete than their internal version, but nonetheless it’s an extremely useful reminder to everyone that lessons need to be, and indeed can be, learnt.
It also gives some confidence that things will actually change and people will learn from such a horrendous accident.
A great deal of research has been done on decision making and how to improve it.
Researchers have identified 4 danger signs:
- Using intuition
- Decisions based on self-interest rather than the greater good.
So, how to avoid bad decisions? Well, that makes interesting reading, too. You might be surprised to hear that all four recommendations involve other people. Far from “committees” producing camels, they actually produce better decisions. Recommendations include:
- Finding safeguards for risky decisions
- Get someone to challenge your views
- Not having all the power vested in one person
- Monitoring what happens afterwards.
Targets and scorecards have been shown over and over again to be harmful if they are measuring the wrong things. Deciding what are the right things is easier to say than it is to do, but that little list above might just be some help.
Friday, 20 March 2009
At the bar we ordered – wait for it - a diet coke and an orange juice. Admittedly it was lunchtime, but in days gone by there might have been a glass of beer on the table. For a variety of reasons, lent included, alcohol was off the menu.
I don’t need to say that it didn’t in any way spoil what was a great catch up. Of course it didn’t - it had been a while and there was loads of news. It’s amazing how people don’t change – and despite quite a few years’ gap it was we were back putting IT systems to rights in no time.
So from the perspective of doing what I said I was going to do – it has been a success.
From a performance point of view, however, it hasn’t been quite the silver bullet I had hoped for. I still have days when I am totally turbo-charged, but also days when it’s a bit of a struggle to get out of bed (much less frequent, but they do happen).
So, what can I conclude? I certainly think it helps. But then a glass or so occasionally helps too. After the fabulous bottle of red Burgundy I am planning with some Roquefort over Easter, I will be sticking to weekends only for the vino.
Somehow, though, I think that might be more difficult than abstaining completely. I’ve never exactly been the moderate type. As the wonderful
Thursday, 19 March 2009
Like me, did you just check your calendar to see whether it really is 2009? That would be 2009 in the 21st century when we are all well aware of the
So what’s the alternative?
Then there are nuclear energy sources – nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. Fission is in use today, with the main disadvantage of the extraordinary long time that the waste remains radioactive.
Nuclear fusion is not yet in production, but it has so many advantages you wonder why. It is clean, produces no greenhouse gases, with either no or little radioactive waste, and is safe. And it can produce electricity in the amounts we need to support an increasingly power-hungry world.
Generating power using fusion would answer most of the problems we currently have with energy production. That’s a pretty big thing for future generations, but it is largely not debated and not sufficiently funded. The reason? We are still some years away from a working fusion power plant and it doesn’t have the easy-sell that renewables have.
More research is needed to harness the power that we know can be created through fusing atoms together. We have some of the best scientific brains in Europe working on it, but they are hampered by lack of political will and lack of funding. More money is spent on ringtones in the UK than is spent on developing fusion. That says something about our priorities.
So what’s the link to metrics, and performance management? You guessed it – targets: government and EU targets. We have an EU mandated target to achieve 15% of our energy from marine renawables by 2020. Laudable in itself, but it means that the long term and the very significant benefits of
Is it another case of measuring what’s easy, and palatable, whilst omitting the more challenging measures? In this world of 30-second sound bites and our obsession with celebrities, we risk neglecting what’s really important. Are we avoiding the decisions, and targets, that will make this planet a habitable place for our children’s children?
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
- Temperance: Eat not to dullness and drink not to elevation.
- Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
- Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
- Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice: Wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forebear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.
- Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; Never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
- Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
You might have noticed that the blog is looking a little happier today. That’s thanks to my very own Picasso – John Cassidy; photographer to the stars and talented business people. I spent some time with John last week, and learnt a few things I didn’t know about how to take fabulous shots of David Beckham, Sean Connery and Caroline Eveleigh (spot the celebrity in that list!).
My only complaint is that he didn’t introduce me to Thierry Henry. Maybe next time?
Thursday, 12 March 2009
Tuesday, 10 March 2009
- Measurement improves understanding: in business, and in life.
- Working with smart people is a joy, which is why I’m such a happy person.
- Everything is more complicated than it looks to most people. I wish I had written that, but I didn’t: Frederick Lewis Allen did. I think he has a point.
- Measure what matters, measure what you can manage; otherwise don’t measure it. More complicated than it looks - see (1), (2) and (3) above.
- Effective data visualisation is worth a thousand pie charts.
- I have not seen any problem, however, complicated, which, when looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated. Apparently Paul Anderson said that in the New Scientist in 1967. He must have been a systems analyst too.
Monday, 9 March 2009
On Saturday evening, however, I had the pleasure of witnessing a ballet performance that was both innovative and measurably excellent.
Northern Ballet Theatre’s production of Swan Lake was horrifyingly original and spectacularly successful. I say horrifyingly because this was Swan Lake – the perennial favourite of ballet lovers everywhere. The one classical ballet that pretty much guarantees the crowds. So it is a brave choreographer who messes with Swan Lake.
Northern Ballet, however, are unafraid of tackling large and contemporary topics with their dance.
They are gritty, humorous, and the very best of what you might expect from the North.
Their Swan Lake managed to pull off the seemingly impossible. They found heartbreak and depths of emotion in Tchaikovsky’s music through the storyline rather than pirouettes. Their athletic male dancers replaced the prettiness of the swans’ tutus but left no-one short changed. The final scene had us transported to a world only rarely glimpsed. And when the final curtain fell the audience was so caught up in the sheer drama of what they had just seen that no one could remember what the original Swan Lake was all about.
But how do you measure something as emotional and innovative as this? By the number of seats sold for the performance? By the rapturous applause? By the loud and unmistakably male northern voice behind me that pronounced “that were brilliant!” as the curtain fell. I guess all of this, and more.
Northern Ballet Theatre like any other business is accountable both commercially and artistically. In their 40th Anniversary year they are going from strength with glowing critical acclaim and performances in more theatres throughout the UK. But in this business, as in any other, the numbers matter. Whilst the numbers can only mirror the brilliance of their current artistic director, David Nixon, and not replace it, they are nonetheless important in securing funding and ensuring more people get to appreciate the power of dance.
The numbers also speak volumes about the standards that the artistic team set for their dancers and their company. Alongside Opera North this is another northern gem that is hitting well above its weight.
I’d wager seats in the stalls that both companies keep more than half an eye on their performance management statistics, silencing any critics who say that measurement stifles creativity.
Friday, 6 March 2009
The intentions behind the target seem clear, but once the target is out there things can sometimes not turn out the way you expect. Whether you call it wriggling, or plain cheating, I guess depends both on the target and the degree to which the intentions behind the target are being stretched.
Whilst we are still in Lent, I’ll use my own example of giving up alcohol as an example.
Although I was brought up a Catholic, religion does not play a big part in my life today. It was a meeting of Toastmasters that raised the idea, and so I set myself a goal of not drinking alcohol during Lent. My schooldays was the last time I had done anything remotely similar (although then it was more likely to have been chocolate!)
As the first weekend arrived the idea of a pint was proposed. “I can’t” I said “I’ve given it up for Lent.” Then I thought – did I just promise to give up wine or the whole alcohol thing? Maybe I’m allowed a beer? I had to go back to my posting to check. You can bet your gin and tonic that if I had written wine in my posting I would have been enjoying a half with a pub meal.
I will admit to being slightly surprised at myself. I knew what my intention was, but I was prepared to look at the wording to see how much leeway I would allow myself. Crumbs! And it seemed so simple.
Then came the 40 days and 40 nights PLUS Sundays. Does that mean I can enjoy a glass on Sundays then? Again, I was looking for some sort of needle for my camels.
The target was so simple, the intention so clear. Yet once the realities of making an effort set in, I looked for various ways out.
I’m pleased to say that I am still on course and not missing the booze at all. But it does raise some interesting ideas about how easily goals can be distorted once they see the light of day.
Needless to say I have been noticing other people’s efforts a little more than I would ordinarily do.
The Church of England has suggested doing good over Lent, rather than giving something up. This interesting, and must be applauded. Yet it strays somewhat from the original intention of remembering Jesus’ fast in the desert.
Targets must be thoughtful, appropriate and possible to achieve. But even when all those are in place, I am still slightly taken aback at my own readiness to look for loopholes.
Wednesday, 4 March 2009
Are we talking about too much exposure to the Internet? Allowing employees to listen to their iPods all day long? Letting people take too many days sick? Nope, none of those.
We are talking about goals in organisations. The ubiquitous and seemingly benign Key Performance Indicator. Objectives, targets, goals – whatever you call them, we all have them – just some are better managed than others.
Two fascinating papers hit my desk yesterday on the subject of goal setting. Both, in different ways, were saying “beware organisational goals”.
In between the doom and gloom of targets, both papers acknowledge the positive side of goal setting. Much research has been done in this area and neither could say that goal setting is a bad thing. It isn’t. It seems to be pretty well universally acknowledged that people like to have something to aim for, and do better when want to be seen to achieve what they set out to do.
Bourne and Franco-Santos suggest a 10-point checklist for goal setting. Notice how far down the list the task of setting targets is!
- Review stakeholder expectations
- Clarify and select strategic objectives
- Define a success map
- Prioritise objectives
- Operational-ise strategic objectives
- Collect data
- Analyse data
- Set targets
- Design an action plan
- Discuss and agree an action plan
Ordonez, L.D. , Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A.D., and Bazerman, M.H (2009) – Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting , Harvard Business School
Franco-Santos, M. and Bourne, M. (2008) –The Impact of Performance Targets on Behaviour: A close look at sales force contexts, Cranfield University School of Management