Thursday 24 December 2009

Happy Christmas

Getting to Excellent has survived a tempestuous year – with the economy taking a nose dive under the carpet and refusing to come out, and now the weather being a little over enthusiastic here in sunny Berkshire. But in between there has been much to discuss, debate, agree and disagree on.

But now Christmas is dawning across the world. The ultimate deadline is making the most determined business person stop and draw breath. And rightly so, because no matter what your religious beliefs Christmas is a time to catch up with old friends, see family and make time for being with people. There are no performance charts, no KPIs, no need to do anything except relax and share with those most important to you.

So Getting to Excellent is taking a break and will be back in the New Year a few pounds heavier and a little better rested. I’d like to thank everyone who has visited fleetingly, those that have visited regularly, and those who have entered into the debate. Happy Christmas!

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Keeping Energy Levels High

Looking back over a year of Getting to Excellent I have had a somewhat mixed reaction to my attempts to improve personal energy levels. I think there is a feeling in business that personal energy levels are not a business issue – providing you do your work then whether or not you have a hangover isn’t anyone else’s concern. And to some degree that may be true, but only to some degree.

Yet for an organisation to do well, so must each of its departments, and each individual within those department. And this is even more important in small businesses. So keeping energy levels high IS a performance management issue.

It has taken me three attempts to give up caffeine. In my usual blasé style, I thought it was going to be easy. I was wrong, oh, so wrong. It’s been difficult, but I'm almost there. In 12 days’ time (yes, I’m counting) I will have gone 100 days without caffeinated beverages. The desire for a cup of tea is now pretty much gone, and the benefits of better sleep and fewer headaches are definitely worth the price. So with an admittedly small test sample of precisely one, I’d say it takes at least 70 days to form a new habit: much, much longer than I had guessed and longer than some other articles suggest.

My return to the gym was less successful. 2009 has been a busy year and I can’t honestly say that exercise is a habit yet. But I’m convinced that this will pay big dividends on the energy front. Getting back in the gym, however, has been massively instructive in managing performance. I’ve written before about the importance of seeing how far I’ve run or cycled, or calories burnt, in keeping motivation levels high. I don’t believe work is any different. Measurement is a great tool in helping and encouraging better performance.

Of course there are other areas to consider in improving energy levels, such as reducing alcohol (I don’t drink much but then it doesn’t really agree with me) and eating better (and eating less).

At the beginning of this post I said I’d had mixed reactions to these initiatives. That would be something of an understatement. Whilst there has been a big interest in my attempts to give up caffeine on the internet, family and friends have been less convinced. One other person has gone cold turkey and given up caffeine completely (and is happier for it) but on the whole everyone else I know has been mystified. But I guess everyone reacts to things differently.

There are clearly different levels of managing performance: personal, departmental and company-wide. However, at a personal level, keeping energy levels high is something that can be measured and managed: and pays dividends for doing so. Keeping off caffeine, getting more exercise and improving diet are all, therefore, on my resolution list for next year. Just so as you know.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

All snowed up and no place to go

Like many other people in the South East yesterday I got snowed up. It took me two hours to go round one roundabout and come back to work. No roads were gritted, and cars were sliding around in their unreasonable and unrealistic hope of getting home. In my short journey I must have seen 3 or 4 blue flashing ambulance lights and multiple roadside rescue vehicles skidding around like everyone else. The radio reported one serious accident that the ambulance was unable to get to because roads were gridlocked. Chaos is too neat a word to describe what was happened on Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire roads yesterday.

But, as Scarlet pointed out, tomorrow is another day so after a makeshift night at the office I’m up to see whether today brings brighter weather and passable roads. Surprise, surprise, after the complexity of the argument about measuring the performance of local councillors, the local Reading Transport web site hasn’t been updated since 15.30 yesterday. I guess they were too busy getting home, or maybe they thought there was no point as stranded cars don’t have internet access anyway. I doubt it’s the responsibility of part-time Councillors to update the web site, but between full time council employees, and local Councillors, basic services like information and gritting were not available.

It seems every year that the local authorities get caught out, which means that every year we get caught out. After the fiasco that has been Eurostar over the last few days, and the complaints about lack of information, even if gritting lorries couldn’t get out you would have thought that someone somewhere would have made information a priority. But even though it’s taken me a full 30 minutes to tone down this blog post, the latest traffic information is still missing.

I have no doubt that it's not much fun being in the firing line when the snow starts to fall, but winter happens approximately once every year and preparing for it seems a sensible precaution. The only gritting lorries that were seen yesterday weren't working. It may be performance under pressure, but surely tax payers deserve better?

Monday 21 December 2009

7 Immutable Laws of Getting to Excellent

Getting to Excellent is almost a year old and it’s the end of the year: a natural time for reflection and review. During my first year of blogging I’ve thought quite a lot about what improves performance. My views have changed little during the year, if anything I've become more convinced of the importance of performance management in business.

So here are my end of year 7 immutable laws of performance management:
  1. The Law of Knowing what Excellence is
  2. The Law of Planning for Excellence
  3. The Law of Measuring Excellence
  4. The Law of Excellent Binary Milestones
  5. The Law of Excellent Visibility (showing visible progress)
  6. The Law of Excellent Reviews
  7. The Law of Recognising Excellence (when good work is achieved)
Each one is a great deal easier to say than to do, and each one contains a wealth of opportunity or pitfalls.

As 2010 approaches, and a brave new decade dawns, the 7 Immutable Laws of Getting to Excellent provide a checklist in striving for excellence in our work and our businesses. Or have I missed something? In which case, let me know ....

Friday 18 December 2009

No one ever got a pig fat by weighing it

Andrew Templeman of the Cabinet Office is quoted as saying:
“No one ever got a pig fat by weighing it.”

Wise words which are well worth remembering as we focus on improving business performance through measurement and evaluation. All the measurement in the world is useless unless the work gets done, and to a high standard. The measurement is only there to help, motivate and enable problems to be identified. So reporting and execution must be hand in glove (that’s execution of the work, not of the person doing the measurement).

As I rattled through my work this morning armed with a report that helped me measure the task (not a job I particularly enjoy doing) I thought about how I get through my exercise routine. I don’t enjoy that either, and certainly not when I’m out of shape as I am right now. But seeing the counter click forwards to my goal keeps me going – whether on the exercise bike or my report. Getting closer to my target, and that magical green traffic light, was enough to get the job done.

Fattening my pigs (or slimming them down) requires solid work over a period of time. Someone once quipped that dieting is like project management: it’s not much fun, goes on a very long time, and no one notices the results. But measuring the results at least keeps the task, project or pig going.

So although no one ever got a pig fat by weighing it, they did get a good meal by making sure the pig got fed every day. Which is really what performance management is all about: measuring the scraps of work that bring us closer to the goal (or lunch).

Thursday 17 December 2009

Measurement is fundamental to performance

I was faced with a task today where I had no immediate way of measuring my progress. Not being able to clearly see my way through a job is frustrating and does not encourage me to perform at my best. It got me thinking about how important it is to be able to see how we are doing vis-a-vis expectations.

It would be a little like driving a car without a speedometer or the ability to measure distance. “Are we there yet?” would be met with “Oh, I think so, a bit further maybe. We will recognise it when we see it!”

We are so used to everything being measured – from the miles that we drive to the hours that we work – that we barely give it a second thought. But the frustration in getting to Birmingham when we don’t know how fast we are going, how far away it is, or how far we have travelled would be significant. Imagine not knowing how much money is in your bank account, or what time your favourite television programme was on. The hit and miss fiasco that would be the weekly budget, or trying to guess when to tune in would be farcical.

Yet how many jobs at work do we tackle without measuring them? Quite a few. How many could be improved through some form of measurement? I would suggest, quite a few.

“The odds of hitting the target go up enormously when you aim at it” is attributed to Mal Pancost. I’m guess he was taking as read that we know how far away the target is.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Visual performance indicators for knowledge workers

I think it was Peter Drucker who first coined the term “knowledge worker”. It is now a term we know and understand well. At least, we understand vaguely what we mean by a knowledge worker – someone who does something that we don’t quite understand. Knowledge workers are a difficult group to manage, as their output is often long term, difficult to measure and not totally understood by whoever is “managing” them. I say “managing” them, because so much has to be done on trust and on outcomes, some of which will be influenced by a myriad of different factors.

However, employee engagement and job satisfaction has been shown to rise when people clearly understand the organisation’s mission, and are actively involved in improving performance: whatever level in the organisation, and whatever the work.

So the key is to ensure that appropriate and visual performance indicators are displayed for people to see, challenge, discuss and use in their work. Without that engagement it is too easy to allow people to slip into thinking that no-one cares, no-one is watching and no-one is interested, which is mostly very far from the truth.

Of course, creating good visual performance indicators requires careful thinking, but it can and is done very successfully by many companies who understand how important it is to keep everyone engaged.

Friday 11 December 2009

Be a great team player

Peter Drucker (1909-2005) once said:
“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.”
I have been outspoken on occasions about Peter Drucker but this quote is right on the money. I don’t believe any of us do it on purpose, but the result is often that people are frustrated in their work because of what they do themselves, and what others do to them.

So if, as Drucker implies, “management” makes it harder for people to work, how can we create an environment where people do brilliant work? How can we facilitate great team work?

  1. Understand what makes people tick. Everyone is different and they work in different ways. Detail people, big picture people, technical people and wordsmiths all have a valuable role to play in teams. If you can create an environment where people are valued for the talents that they bring to the team, you are a long way down the road to bringing out the best in them.
  2. Leave your ego at the door. Work suffers when egos collide and no-one wins. Good team work needs people to understand first, and agree or disagree afterwards. Easy to write but difficult to do. Most work is improved by having a number of heads look at it, and most work is harmed by divas who won’t have their judgement questioned.
  3. Understand the team’s mission. A team is formed in order to produce something or to perform better. If the thing or the level of performance could be achieved by a number of disparate individuals, there is no need to form a team. Make the purpose of the team’s mission crystal clear so everyone knows what the group is aiming at.
  4. Make individuals accountable for their contribution. A team is not an excuse for everyone and no one to be responsible for problems. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities are important within teams as elsewhere.
The amount that has been written about high performance teams is a testament to both the importance of teams, and the difficulties of getting people to work well together. When people are stressed, or things aren’t going well, it is too easy to blame rather than to understand. But when all has been shouted and accused, only understanding and clarity will improve performance.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

John Wayne and Einstein remind us to do things differently if we want better results

There’s an old and very bad joke about two friends watching a John Wayne movie. One friend turns to the other and says “I bet you £1 the cowboy gets shot when he reaches the top of the hill.”,

“OK”, says his pal.

Sure enough as the cowboy gets to the top of the hill John Wayne shoots him. “Nah” says the first friend, “I can’t take £1 from you; I’ve seen the film before.”

“So have I”, says his pal “but I didn’t think he would make the same mistake twice.”

The joke's gentle dig at the idea that the cowboy might learn from his mistake isn’t so funny when we consider how often we expect different results from doing the same things.

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying:

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Measuring and evaluating performance is only of value if we use the information to find new ways of doing things to improve results. Only by trying different things can we hope to get different results. If this sounds obvious it may be that it is obvious. The difficulty is that it is too easy to get caught up with trying harder to think about trying something new.

Company culture, stubborn personalities and just not thinking all contribute to the idea that somehow the cowboy might survive through sheer willpower alone. He won’t. And results won’t suddenly change unless something makes them.

Changes can be large or small, revolutionary or evolutionary. They should be tested alongside the way you’ve always done things and measured. Improvements in any process or business come from new ideas and new ways of doing things. Which is why new CEO’s brought in to revitalise companies are so fond of flashy change programmes that shake up the status quo.

So if you want to improve your performance, what are you going to change?

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Measuring performance of local Councillors

Public sector performance indicators are something of a minefield as the National Indicator Set proves. They are costly and difficult to collect (sometimes not adequately available at all), not always representative of a job well done, and can get manipulated in horrific ways.

So why does anyone bother?

Well, performance indicators are exactly what they say on the tin – indicators. They are not a perfect measure of performance, but an indicator. And they are a lot better than nothing.

In measuring performance of local Councillors there may be differences, for example, in the type of enquiries that Councillors are asked to deal with (large, small, difficult and easy enquiries), but on average they will even out and provide an indication of workload. They cannot show how diligently a Councillor attends to an enquiry, or the quality of the outcome, but they will give an idea. Ditto meeting attendance, voting, etc.

In my area a computerized system is now used for Councillors to log enquiries, and details from the system are available on request under the Freedom of Information Act. However, it is optional to use the system and now that some of the information has been published several Councillors say that they do not use the system at all. They are effectively bypassing accountability. If this particular Performance Indicator was published as a national (or even local) league table then you might find they suddenly started to use it with more gusto; otherwise they look like shirkers.

Politics and all its power is an ideal hot-house for cheating the statistics in various ways. If I am prepared to cheat my caffeine challenge by eating chocolate, imagine what an elected politician is prepared to do to make themselves look better in the eyes of voters. Lambeth and their ghost libraries was a deliciously embarrassing example.

But my opinion, and that of many leading organisations, is that working hard to get performance indicators as indicative as possible of true performance, and to have good systems to track and publicize the results, does improve performance. If information relating to Councillors’ work were available on web sites more easily, instead of having to be requested and posted piecemeal in blogs, it would have a great deal more power. Voters would have better information to base their decisions on.

It is important to remember that performance indicators are a management tool, not an end in themselves. By that I mean they are one tool in the tool bag, to be used with care and backed up with other information as necessary. The weaknesses of performance indicators are often used as an argument not to use them (mostly by those who come off worst in the performance stats). Providing they are used sensibly they are extremely valuable and work as well in politics as they do in the private sector.

Monday 7 December 2009

40 years of Northern Ballet Theatre

The evening of the 5th December 2009 will not be easily forgotten by Northern Ballet Theatre. Current and past dancers performed together in a one-off performance of A Christmas Carol with many more ex-Northern Ballet Theatre dancers in the audience. It was as emotional as it was spectacular, and celebrated 40 years of Northern Ballet Theatre.

Stars past and present were greeted by rapturous applause by those who knew and love their dancing. The joie de vivre which naturally emanates from this talented and fun company was overflowing. Jeremy Kerridge in the title role brought home the very essence of Dickens’ important little tale.

As a northerner myself I was quite overcome by the brilliance of what they pulled off on Saturday. They are polished and professional, but also humorous and original; this is a company that never fails to bring a smile to everyone’s face.

Northern Ballet Theatre has gained a loyal and admiring audience by understanding their strengths and weaknesses. They play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses to great effect. Their repertoire does not try to emulate the big ballet companies – The Nutracker is replaced by A Christmas Carol and Peter Pan. Swan Lake is somewhat different from the classic version. Sleeping Beauty is absent, making room for the less obvious Dracula or Wuthering Heights. Instead of going head to head with the competition, they change the rules. They have fun with their strategy as well as their ballet.

Understanding strengths and weaknesses is a foundation stone for success, whoever you are. It is wonderful to see the dry SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) put to use in such an entertaining way. It reminded me that whatever our talents, everyone has a role to play.

It is up to all of us to figure out our own individual strengths and weaknesses, as well the teams we work in and the organisations we represent. That clarity will help lift our individual and team performance, and build better organisations. Even if we didn’t get to be a ballet dancer when we grew up.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Do your objectives have a competitive element?

Having a clear objective is absolutely the first step in achieving excellence. The first Immutable Law of Improving Performance is to know what excellence is, ie to have a SMART goal.

Whilst I am a big fan of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Timed) goals, they leave out one important element: competition. Whether at an individual or team level, competitive goals are highly effective.

I’ve recently re-joined the gym after far too long without vigorous exercise. The exercise bike now needs to be tamed and my motivation kept high so that I don’t slink back to bad habits. Racing against my personal best (being competitive with myself) is effective and very tiring. I often see people with little notebooks or cards, noting down times and distances. Clearly, I’m not the only person who is pushed to exercise a little longer by matching or exceeding yesterday’s time.

Racing against myself, however, is nothing like as effective as racing against someone of a similar, or slightly higher, fitness level. Whether is an overt or covert race it is surprising how deep I can dig into my reserves. This is also very tiring.

League tables are great examples of motivating individuals in teams to do better. Whatever is being measured does have to be within their control and so is well suited to areas such as sales. Software systems that only closest team members to be viewed as a subset of the whole enable people to compete against each other at all levels.

League tables originated in sports and work well to keep everyone motivated and interested to improve. The same principle works in an organisational setting.

So have a look at your objectives. Is there something of a competitive nature in them? Could they be improved by adding a competitive element?

If you have enjoyed this article please share it on Twitter, StumbleIt or your personal favourite. Thanks!

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Set ambitious goals and strive for excellence. Anyone can do average

Anyone can do average; few strive for excellence

Focusing on what you do well, and indeed what you can be excellent at, was one of the key messages in Jim Collins’ phenomenal book “Good to Great.” Yet being excellent, either in business or individually is the exception rather than the rule. But anyone can do average. Indeed most do average, with some doing exceptionally awful from time to time.

But why? Is it too much effort? Does it not occur that we can do better? Indeed, striving to be the best at something can often be an uncomfortable thought – what if we fail or look stupid in the attempt?

Setting ambitious goals does nothing but good. When I set a goal to get a distinction in my MBA I got more out of the course as a result. I didn’t achieve my goal (I got a merit on account of one assignment) but I still achieved more than if I hadn’t set that goal. I’d have loved the kudos of a distinction, but the really important bit was the learning – which my goal helped me improve.

“Good to Great” has had an impact far and wide. I see it listed as a favourite business book in many places. I’ve even see organisations state their BHAG (big hairy audacious goal), which is wonderful. By definition very few can or will be excellent, but that’s not really the point. Aiming for average is a travesty. Aiming for excellence at least has the chance of achieving excellence, providing it goes hand in hand with good planning and unfailing determination.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Zero Tolerance for Excellent Habits

My 100-day caffeine-free challenge hasn’t exactly been plain sailing.

I’ve failed twice and bent the rules along the way. Rule bending is not unusual when cornered into absolute succeed/fail situations. In my case I made it “OK” to eat chocolate and didn’t worry about painkillers that contained caffeine. In fact, those painkillers contained a whopping 180mg of caffeine; the equivalent to two strong freshly brewed coffees.

Not surprisingly I didn’t sleep well and still had a racing heart the following morning. I am fast concluding that habits need to be all or nothing - at least until they really are habits.

I think there is a great deal of guff talked about habits. Creating a habit in 15 days, for example, in my experience is unlikely to be successful. I’ve heard it takes 6 weeks to break a bad habit and my own experience of giving up alcohol for lent (48 long days) wasn’t long enough to make it permanent.

Researchers suggest that 66 days is more realistic to form a new habit, and longer for challenging habits.

Attitude of mind also plays a big part. If you don’t really believe the habit is worthwhile it will be very difficult to make it part of your life. Whereas if you are convinced it will be life-enhancing and beneficial, the journey becomes much easier. I found that taking the time to do some research paid back big dividends for me.

So whilst I’m still not through my own caffeine-free challenge I’m twice as sure that zero tolerance is needed for success.

Friday 27 November 2009

Want to be successful? Have a plan!

Oddly enough the most difficult thing about being a success is figuring out what you want to be a success at. It’s strange, isn’t it, that we are as a species so undecided. I know a few people whose talents were so obvious at a young age that they have just followed their dream. But it’s certainly not the case for everyone. But working hard at figuring out what you want to excel at is so worthwhile. Because once you have a goal you have a chance of being successful.

Of course the difficulty is the choice. There are so many things we can do, could do, or perhaps would do if we had the time/money/figure for it. But there are relatively few things we can really excel at, and it’s figuring out what we love doing, and can be really good at that enables us to enjoy real success.

Assuming you know what you want, a big assumption I know but let’s assume for the second, the next stage is to plan. Plan in detail what’s needed to be successful. Plan what could go wrong. Look at other people doing what you want to do. Consider the risks. Figure out how long things might take. How much they might cost. What assumptions you have made that might be incorrect. Go through the whole shooting match of thinking through what will be required. It takes time, quite a lot of time, but will pay you back a thousand fold.

Gandhi said “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes”. Planning is a formalised and proven way of thinking through and refining thoughts into something actionable.

Pooh Bear said “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

As a bear of little brain I know exactly what Pooh Bear meant. I’ve spent a few days this week on business planning and its tough going, but oh so worthwhile.

I’ve bought Richard Stutely’s book “The Definitive Business Plan” and highly recommend it. He’s seen businesses come and go, worked on plans and budgets for UK plc (he worked at the Treasury) so comes at the subject with some authority.

So if being successful at something matters to you, have a plan!

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Caffeine-free and happy

I know I promised not to mention the 100-day caffeine-free challenge (saga?) again, but it’s is just too long to go without an update. I’ve now been caffeine-free for 50 days. At least, I’m not drinking tea or coffee; I do have the occasional piece of chocolate.

50 days is the longest I’ve managed so far (30 and 24 days being the two previous attempts) but having failed twice there is not a lot that could force a cup of tea down my throat right now. That’s not to say I don’t have the occasional yearning for a cuppa, I do, but after the last failed attempt I had to make a decision – go back to drinking tea or stay caffeine free. I opted for caffeine-free because I believe it gives me more energy, fewer headaches and better sleep. Not inconsequential benefits in exchange for drinking herb teas or Roibush.

I came to the conclusion that I would need a little help if I were to make 100 days without a caffeinated beverage, so I bought the much praised book “Caffeine Blues” by Stephen Cherniske. If you are also trying to live without tea leaves or coffee beans I would highly recommend it. It is slightly evangelical in parts, but well researched and convincing. The list of problems associated with caffeine, including stress, depression, poor sleep, plus many others, is long and worrying. Yet in talking to friends about caffeine it seems many people would sooner put up with various ailments than do anything about it. Or maybe they think that a substance so widely accepted by society cannot be harmful. An interesting idea ...

So another 50 days to go, including the Christmas and New Year holidays which I’m guessing will be the most difficult. The strangest thing about this challenge has been that I’m always tempted when in a relaxed social setting, rather than at work. My workday habit of peppermint tea is now established, and I think my temperament is more even for taking caffeine out of the working day. It’s the out of work days that cause me the most trouble, the days when I’m having such a nice time that a cup of green tea would just go down a treat. Not dissimilar to having a glass of wine when relaxing with friends.

I’ve been struck by the interest in living a caffeine-free life. It seems many people are looking at ways to improve their health or perform better. I’d be really interested in others’ experiences, either through comments or by email.

If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share it with others using the buttons below. Or subscribe with an RSS feed.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Windows 7 est arrivé

There was a time when nothing less than a new dress from Harvey Nics would be required to cheer a girl up. These days a new operating system does the trick! And Windows 7 is about as cheerful as they come.

Although Windows 7 has been around for a couple of weeks, my new DirectX 10 graphics card only arrived today, so I had to wait to have a look at Microsoft’s latest desktop operating system. Just like the new frock, as soon as you try it on you wonder how you ever lived without it. The user interface is simpler, sleeker and of course the graphics are lovely.

The proof of the pudding will be in the stability, but first impressions are good. I’d been struggling with Internet Explorer 8 on Vista, so I’m hoping Windows 7 is going to put such problems behind me. We will see.

Windows 7 has some undeniably terrific new features, and lots of refinements that make it easier to use. The desktop is less cluttered than Vista through an opt-in approach to gadgets. I love the jump start concept which enables recently worked on documents or folders to be accessed easily. It’s all so much brighter, shinier and slightly lemon scented. In the absence of a credit card blow-out in Knightsbridge, it’s just the ticket for a grey November.

Monday 23 November 2009

Database guys only want sets

As I queued for breakfast last Friday, the T-shirt in front me read “Database guys only want sets.”

Databases, it seems, are a bloke thing. This is news to me having been fascinated by databases since before SQL Server 6.5. I idly wondered what a gal’s database T-shirt might read as I looked around the room. A sea of male faces stared back at me - all of them looking as if sets were the furthest thing from their minds.

I was at SQLBits Goes West – the latest SQLBits conference for those, like me, who work with Microsoft SQL Server in its various guises.

The conference was being held in Newport, Wales, at the iconic Celtic Manor Resort. It’s the first thing you see as you enter Wales from the M4. It nestles in the steep hillside, towering above the motorway below. I’ve driven past it many times, but this was my first visit inside. It is grand and spacious and its imposing front hall vaguely reminded me of The Shining. Jack Nicholson, fortunately, was nowhere in sight.

SQLBits is a terrific idea. Organised by a bunch of enthusiastic SQL Server Microsoft Valued Professionals, it is not-for-profit and all-for-education. And bacon butties.

Last Friday’s excellent presentations were centred on the latest Beta releases from Microsoft: Office 2010 and SQL Server 2008 R2. There are some deeply exciting new features which open up Business Intelligence to many more users. This has to be a good thing. It remains to be seen whether Microsoft’s strategy of BI for the masses pays off but from where I'm sitting it's looking good.

Thursday 19 November 2009

1% inspiration looking for perspiration

With all the talk of metrics on Getting to Excellent over the last couple of days, it’s worth thinking about what lies behind the metrics. Because metrics only report back on inspired initiatives. Inspiration comes first, metrics second.

Thomas Edison of light bulb fame said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. (Is that why the light bulb is such a potent symbol for inspiration?) Metrics fit on the 99% side; the diligent work needed to improve performance until success is achieved. Edison pointed out that a genius is merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.

Of course, inspiration may or may not be genius, which is why measurement and evaluation are so important. By assessing the success of initiatives we are able to understand better what works and what doesn’t. Edison reckoned to have constructed 3,000 different theories, with only two being successful. Yet it was the measurement and evaluation of the 2,998 theories that led him to the successful ones.

So whilst metrics may appear dry on the surface it does follow some truly inspirational stuff.

The world is full, full, full of information. Full, full, full of ideas. And in between all of that there are some sparks of inspiration. Which, no doubt, have been honed through years of careful observation of what works and what doesn’t.

So are you working on the 1% inspiration today, or the 99% perspiration of your homework? What made Edison a household name was the diligent 99% of careful experimentation, measurement and evaluation. Genius!

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Load, fire, aim!

I went to a marketing workshop yesterday; it was good, high energy stuff. I know the presenter quite well after having worked with him some years ago. He takes his business pretty seriously and works hard at it. He’s written two books about marketing and is well worth listening to.

I also happen to know that whilst he is a man of words he also pays attention to his metrics. He knows exactly what works and what doesn’t in terms of his own marketing, and regularly lets slip a variety of metrics related to his own business.

So when he stood up in front of everyone yesterday and said his philosophy is “Load, fire, aim!” I had to raise an eyebrow. He got a hearty laugh, but why do people want to encourage the thought that analysis is something that isn't necessary? We do we prefer to think that success comes from random acts of genius instead of carefully worked through choices backed by solid data?

The reality is that unless you measure and evaluate what you are doing, you will not know what works and what does not. It may be that you have to try a variety of different approaches before hitting on the successful ones, but without the measurement, evaluation and analysis we are left in the dark.

Of course workshops have to have enough laugh-out-loud moments to keep the audience happy. But don’t let bravado fool you – those who are successful at what they do are also those who measure stuff. They might not think of it as analysis, and may stare blankly at you when you talk about measurement and evaluation, but that’s what they are doing. Measuring each initiative, and then going back afterwards and figuring out just how successful it was. Was it better or worse than other initiatives? This is data driven marketing at its best, on this occasion given a rather curious name by someone who clearly thinks analysis is something to keep quiet about!

Monday 16 November 2009

Measuring and managing performance

Why measuring financial performance matters
Business performance is financial performance, make no mistake about it. The companies with the largest turnovers, the biggest market capitalisations, highest profits are the most successful. These are the companies that make good strategic decisions and create value for their customers, as well as ensuring their shareholders are financially rewarded.

The business of business is business, and unless a company generates sufficient profit there is no opportunity to achieve softer objectives such as creating a good working environment for staff, or being a good corporate citizen.

Not-for-profit organisations also have important financial considerations. Whether financed by grants, taxes or charitable donations there is a duty to provide value for customers and stakeholders. At the very least not-for-profit organisations must demonstrate good financial control and appropriate use of funds.

So if finance is the overriding consideration for most organisations – why measure anything else?

The answer is simple. Excellent financial performance is the result of good decision making and creating value for customers, not the cause. Financial performance is a measure of how well a company has done from a number of different viewpoints: marketing, production, financial control, research & development, training, etc.

Unless financial results are measured, however, there is no objective way of assessing how effective an organisation is. It is clear that sound measurement and management of business activities such as marketing campaigns, new product development, improving productivity, or training staff are the way to achieve better financial performance.

So the burning questions remain – how do you measure and manage the performance of all these constituent parts in order to create value for customers? How do you ensure these initiatives reap the appropriate financial returns?

Why measuring non-financials matters more
As far back as the 1950’s major corporations were realising that measuring the financials was essentially a backwards looking activity. For organisations to perform better, they had to look forwards and measure the full range of activities that contribute to their success.

Perhaps the most influential writers on the subject in recent years have been Robert Kaplan and David Norton. In 1992 they published an article in Harvard Business Review called The Balanced Scorecard in which they argued that four key aspects of a business must be measured and managed in relation to the organisation’s strategy:

  1. Financial performance

  2. Customer focus

  3. Internal business process

  4. Learning and Growth.

This has been an enormously influential model – not least because it links measurement and management to strategy. Since their ideas were first published it has been adopted to a greater or lesser extent by many leading organisations.

There are undoubtedly other ways to divide up the activities of businesses and organisations, but the four quadrants of the Balanced Scorecard provide an excellent start.

Even with such a framework there are a host of possibilities, initiatives, projects and measurements to consider. Once decisions have been made as to what to progress and what to discard initiatives then have to be managed, monitored and evaluated to assess their success.

Performance management, measurement, and evaluation is a rich and varied set of disciplines that enable organisations to put a framework on the complex business of improving performance.

Thursday 12 November 2009

What gets measured gets done

Want to lose weight? Count calories.

Want to get fit? Count miles cycled, rowed or run. Count beats of your heart.

Want to make more sales? Count the number of meetings set, the number of telephone calls made, the number of opportunities in your pipeline.

Want to develop key accounts? Count the training courses your sales people attend. Count the time they spend with decision makers.

Want to make progress on an important project? Count binary milestones passed. Count time spent on the project. Count project reviews. Count meetings with stakeholders.

Whatever you are trying to achieve there will be things you can count that give you an indication of progress. It is only an indication – the number of calories consumed doesn’t tell you whether they came from cranberries or camembert, celery or steak, but total calories consumed is extremely helpful in the battle of the bulge.

It’s the same with improving business performance. Training courses don’t directly increase sales, but over time there is a correlation. Counting sales training attended is very likely to result in improved account relationships and improved sales.

When I was practicing public speaking someone once pointed out that no one had ever been known to get worse through turning up to meetings and giving speeches. Counting the number of speeches given was as pretty good indication of the quality of the speaker. It was no coincidence that the best speakers were also those who had given the most speeches and attended the most meetings.

Making these counts visible has a multiplying effect on behaviour. When you can see the counts, and everyone else can see the counts, it encourages less calories, more miles, more meetings, etc.

So whatever you are trying to improve, finding things to measure is the first step. Don’t worry if your measurements are not a perfect guide to the achievement of an objective, just start by measuring. In my experience of working with a variety of clients, the simple act of measurement often has a dramatic and positive result.

Try it. Start counting and see whether what you are counting doesn’t start thoughts about how you can do it better, faster, or more effectively.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Thank you

Thank you are two words that are heard all too seldom in business, yet they make such a difference.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been dismayed and delighted by those two little words.

I had done some writing for a business friend as a favour and when I sent it over by email I heard nothing back. Not even an acknowledgement, never mind a thank you. I was upset and outraged. What rudeness, I thought. Maybe he didn’t like it and didn’t want to say! I was starting to feel paranoid, but he should have at least said thank you … I worried away at the incident like an out of sorts terrier.

Then the tables turned. First of all my business friend hadn’t even seen the work I had done for him, and when he did was profuse in his thanks. It was a silly misunderstanding.

Then two commercial thank you’s arrived.

The first was a letter from British Gas thanking me for not moving my contract. They didn’t try and sell me anything, nor upgrade anything. It was just a thank you. Short and sweet. I was slightly taken aback.

The second was from my bank manager. Now I was suspicious!

I had been livid with the bank over a mistake they had made. Even as a business customer I felt helpless against the might of their systems and policies. It seemed there was nothing they could or would do to get the problem resolved as fast as I would like.

On Monday morning, before my first cup of peppermint tea, the phone rang and someone gave me all the necessary details that sorted out the issue. I felt better. Maybe I had been too hard on them. They had responded. My week wasn’t going to be a nightmare after all.

Then the phone went again, this time it was my bank manager apologising for the problem and assuring me it had all been put right. By this point I felt as if the bank did actually care that they had messed up.

But when I received a bouquet of flowers as a thank you for my patience during the incident I felt suddenly and uncharacteristically fond of my bank manager. The huge, faceless Barclays had done something deeply human and warm. Crumbs!

Thank you is so powerful, so effective, and so underused. Thanks Lynn, the flowers are still lovely. (No, not all bank managers are men!)

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Data Centred Decision Making

Making decisions can be tough: so many choices and no guarantees of making the right one. I’ve recently seen the decision-making process behind two decisions and both were instructive.

The first was for a social group where an interesting ethical question came up. The question and replies batted backwards and forwards. There was no right or wrong answers, but plenty of indignation and lots of opinion. Then someone sent a simple email containing the data relating to the problem. They had gone to the archives and dug up the relevant history and presented it clearly and dispassionately in an email. It was strong stuff and illustrated beautifully the uncomfortable feelings that everyone had about the dilemma. Getting the information took a bit of time but the effect was convincing and helped the group enormously.

The second was a decision at work where again feelings ran high. My co-Director had one opinion and I a different one. We discussed and argued the point but couldn’t get agreement. We decided to break the meeting to go do some research and analysis. When we came back together the decision was obvious – the data spoke volumes. We went away with a clear decision and no hard feelings.

Data centred decision making takes more effort because you have to go and get the data. Sometimes that takes quite a long time, but better decisions come out of the process. When you look at the two examples above, I think both were solved faster and more amicably by having good data.

Not all decisions lend themselves to data-centred decision making, but it’s worth asking “what data is available?” even if it only contributes to the process. Sometimes the results are surprising.

Monday 9 November 2009

How's your business heartbeat?

Does your business have a heartbeat? A rhythm that you work to? A monthly or weekly routine that punctuates other work?

I’m referring to regular work in your schedule that absolutely, definitely, no-question, must get done sort of stuff. Many businesses have set dates for status reports, month end accounts, marketing communications, or even expenses claims. I certainly remember during my younger days resenting such deadlines – they seemed bureaucratic and always came at the worst possible time. But over the years I started to understand the benefits of such schedules and to appreciate being able to plan my work.

The most obvious example of this is statutory reporting of results. The larger the business, the more onerous and important the process, but most organisations have some statutory responsibility to disclose their financials.

If you work in a small or micro business, it’s up to you to set business deadlines and to ensure they are adhered to. As a result, many people don’t bother, and important things either never get done or get done so infrequently as to damage performance.

So what are the advantages of setting a regular schedule for regular work?
  1. Things get done faster if they are done regularly. Any job is a lot easier if you have to do it weekly or monthly rather than quarterly or even less frequently.
  2. People know what to expect. Communicating with customers and prospects, for example, is best done to a regular schedule so they know start to expect your communication.
  3. It simplifies decision making and therefore increases the chances of the work being done. Decisions about what needs to be done are made well in advance so that everyone knows what is expected.
  4. You can plan. When you know what’s needed and when, you can plan your days and weeks accordingly. This also means that bigger blocks of work can get done over a period of time.
  5. You can measure compliance. This is not an advantage if the activity is pointless, but you shouldn’t be doing it if it’s pointless. So meeting the scheduled time for the work has benefit, as does measuring compliance until it becomes a habit.
The biggest disadvantage with regularly scheduled work is that people keep on doing it after it has ceased being useful. Whilst this does happen, I think it happens less than enforcing the schedule work that could benefit from a disciplined schedule.

Friday 6 November 2009

Aspects of improving performance

There is a strong feeling that the business world is changing. Social media is rushing towards us at an uncomfortable pace, the internet is evolving and financial crises of varying types are still with us. Added to which, many people’s jobs have changed over the last 10 years. There are many more information workers, people who frequently know more than their line manager within their field of expertise.

Yet the fundamentals of business apply. The business of business is still business. To make a healthy profit in today’s fast changing and difficult economy it is necessary to have eyes everywhere and good information. Perhaps it was ever thus, it just feels more important than ever right now.

The 4 E’s are a good starting point:
  • Effectiveness
  • Efficiency
  • Economy
  • Ethics
Effectiveness is whether we are furthering our goals. Obviously, you can’t measure effectiveness unless you know what your goals are. Having the right strategy is still Top Dog.

Efficiency is getting things done in a time and resource efficient way. Doing the wrong things efficiently won’t help you be more effective, and doing the right things too slowly will make you uncompetitive, which is why efficiency comes after effectiveness. In our “Getting Things Done” culture, it pays to remember to pay attention to Effectiveness before turning to Efficiency.

Economy is making sure you don’t spend too much on being effective or being efficient. Most organisations, large or small, have good systems to keep tabs on this one.

And ethics is ensuring you don’t trample over other people or squander the earth’s resources in pursuit of your dreams. An increasingly important dimension to business and living in the new world order.

Simple? On paper, sure! In practice? Well that’s where the art, science and monitoring of business starts.

It is down to each person, each team and each organisation to figure out what the 4 E’s mean for them, and how to measure them.

Thursday 5 November 2009

A Quiet Pomodoro

I’ve written before about the simple but brilliant Pomodoro Technique. It is a more fun version of a technique that I have used for years which I prosaically named the Stopwatch Technique. It’s not difficult to see why one is now a world-wide phenomenon and the other is, well, a red stop watch in my drawer.

For those not familiar with either technique, the idea is basically that you concentrate on one task at a time, and work for a set period of time, stopping when time is up to take a short break. The Pomodoro Technique uses a wonderfully bright red tomato timer (beautifully red and wonderfully tomato-like). The Stopwatch Technique uses a, eerrrr, stopwatch.

Both are pretty low tech and both are effective. The difference is that the beautiful bright red tomato timer ticks rhythmically as you work and then shrills out with a loud ring when time is up. Without fail I jump out of my skin when this happens, as does everyone else in the office. I’ve tried putting it in a drawer or under a sweater to muffle the sound, but the deeper I concentrate, but more shocked I am when the timer rings out. Perhaps just an indication of how successful the technique is.

So quietly and without fuss I have been going back to the stop watch. It’s not as pretty (although it is a very groovy red) but it is SILENT. It doesn’t tick, but it does remind me that time is passing and encourages me to focus. It also makes me very aware of time and how I use it.

There are no web sites for the stop watch technique, no groups on Facebook or Tweets on Twitter, but it is a gentle, effective and most of all quiet way of reminding me to value my time and focus on the task in hand. Not bad for the £1.99 I paid for it about 12 years ago.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

What makes a great leader?

I’ve been mulling over the findings from my analysis of Top American CEOs. Statistics are always interesting; learning from facts rather than prejudices. But of course statistics can be highlighted in whatever way the author wants. I know someone who was looking at the exact same data from the point of view of college drop-outs rather than post-graduate qualifications which was where I started. The way you twist and turn data can change the way you see things.

But one of the numbers that has stuck in my mind since looking at the data is the length of service that these people have with their organisations. About 80% have been with their companies longer than 10 years. The Japanese famously reward employees through length of service rather than merit, which seems very strange to western ways. Yet clearly there is something to be said for learning a business inside out.

The one thing it is difficult to see from statistics is the personalities of these people. Perhaps what they have in common is their determination to succeed, whether or not they stayed on at university and regardless of where they did their MBA.

Jim Collins is inspirational about leadership in his book
Good to Great which I am rereading at the moment. He talks of Level 5 leaders who are humble, self-effacing and steely in their determination that their organisations succeed. He describes the way they don’t take personal credit for successes, but attribute the good stuff to the efforts of their team. He also describes the way they are always prepared to take the blame for problems.

If Collins were doing his research today I wonder how many of these Top American leaders would qualify as Level 5 Leaders …

The other common characteristic amongst the 100 top CEOs is that they are all men - without exception, 100%. It is perhaps the starkest statistic of all yet I was so immersed in business schools and length of service that I missed it. Oddly enough, all Jim Collins’ Level 5 Leaders were men too. What does that say about women in business today?

Tuesday 3 November 2009

The view from the top

Ever wondered who runs the top US companies? Forbes published a list in 2008 of the top 500 Chief Executive Officers in America, ranked by their remuneration, and it makes instructive reading.

I decided to take a closer look at the top 100 amongst this elite bunch and this is what I found:
  • American corporations are not run by college graduates. On average they are 58 years of age; the most junior is 43 years old and the most senior is 80 years young.
  • They have worked at their companies for an average of 22 years and almost a third has worked for their companies for 30 years or more.
  • They have been in post for an average of 11 years.
  • They get paid an average of $40m per annum. Trust me; you don’t want to know how much Larry Ellison gets paid. Even the lowest annual remuneration of almost $18m is eye-watering.
They are, of course, running some of the largest and most successful companies in America. So what are the qualifications for a successful CEO? Well it seems that staying on at school helps: two third of these CEOs has a post-graduate qualification:
  • 45% of America’s top CEOs has an MBA, with Harvard the business school of choice
  • 5% have a PhD
  • 14% have another post-graduate qualification.

One third, of course, has no post-grad qualification at all. And some don’t have a first degree, the most famous of whom is Larry Ellison who dropped out of college to start Oracle.

Only 12% of these CEOs founded their companies, the rest have either risen through the ranks or been drafted in to run the company. 75% have been with their companies for 15 years or longer.

So it seems that if you want to run a large corporation, sticking to knitting definitely helps. As does concentrating in strategy class.

Monday 2 November 2009

Managers Behaving Professionally

I have personally seen two examples recently of Managers Behaving Badly. Unfortunately, unlike the TV series Men Behaving Badly, which was truly hilarious, bad behaviour at work isn’t funny. It’s stressful, worrying, and sometimes can have devastating effects. Only recently France Telecom was in the news for their abnormally high rate of suicides amongst their employees during at time of reorganisation.

So what constitutes professional behaviour from a manager? How can stress be reduced at times of change and job losses? With our own postal strike rumbling on, these seem like particularly pertinent questions. Some thoughts on managers behaving professionally:
  1. Define what constitutes a job well done. By thinking through in advance what you need from people, and what they need to do the job, everyone’s chances of a good outcome are increased.
  2. Acknowledge good work. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great talks of exceptional leaders who took the blame when things went wrong, but never took the credit when things went right. They gracefully acknowledged the contribution of their team. Paradoxically the team held the leader in higher regard for his or her actions, rather than feeling they hadn’t contributed. It seems humble leaders are also good leaders.
  3. Do what you say you are going to do. So simple, so effective, and so appreciated by everyone.
  4. Be open and allow people to understand, rather than presenting a fait accompli. Stress is at its highest when things are being done to you, rather than you being in control. Many small businesses are facing very difficult times at the moment, but stress levels are managed because owners have all the facts and can work accordingly.
  5. If training budgets have to be cut find other ways of getting information out to people who need it. It is stressful and very difficult to work without the knowledge you need to do a good job. Be creative and encourage knowledge cafes to share information about topics that might have been dealt with through a training course before budgets were cut.
It’s a pretty stressful time for everyone at the moment, but reducing the stress and worry out of people’s working lives as far as is possible, has to be a worthy goal.

Thursday 29 October 2009

A bad day's work

A bad day’s work is a lot better than no day’s work at all. Philip Pullman
There are many days when we are not at our best. A bad night’s sleep, a cold, or perhaps an extra glass of wine with dinner has taken the edge off our normal enthusiasm for doing a good job. It happens.

Philip Pullman is the best selling author of Northern Lights and The Golden Compass amongst many others. I found this quote recently and liked it a lot. It is gently encouraging to do the best we can even when our energies are not as well channelled as we would like. Get something done, he encourages. Move something forward. Don’t give in and do nothing.

As I quietly sniff with a cold I brought back from Paris, I have been thinking about this quotation, as I try to make sluggish days as useful as I can. And what do you know? It works! To some degree, at least ...

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Do one thing at a time

Only yesterday I was reading tips about how to make better use of standing in line at the supermarket by texting or phoning business contacts. As I read the article I felt rather ordinary. When I stand in line at the supermarket I don’t do anything much, I just queue. Yet another part of me wondered what sort of experience these business contacts might be getting from these calls or texts. I concluded it couldn’t be that good to have to share time with grocery shopping.

It seems as though doing one thing at a time is out of fashion. Harvard’s Management Tip for Today is to Prioritize Value over Volume. Research shows that multitasking produces mediocre results, however single-tasking is not recommended either. It’s too slow, argues the author, for today’s world.

I say bunkum to that, and here’s why.

  1. Thinking time is valuable. The times when we appear to be “doing nothing” like queuing in the supermarket or taking a shower are often the times when our brains come up with the best ideas. Valuing downtime, rather than trying to cram it full of more “doing” things is ultimately more successful. Allow the brain to worth through problems and find good solutions in a relaxed way.

  2. Most things have scope for error. Writing proposals, answering emails, figuring out systems, paying for groceries all can go wrong in small or large ways. Concentrating on the task in hand reduces the possibility of error. Doing things without error means you only do them once, which is a great deal faster than doing them twice.

  3. Many things are difficult. Finding the right words to convince someone of your point of view, ensuring your communications are not misinterpreted, or ensuring the numbers add up all require focus and double-checking.

My two favourite Swiss artists, Fischli and Weiss, produced a simple list entitled “How to Work Better.” It hangs on my wall close enough to my desk so I can glance up from time to time to read it. And I do. I often glance up and I do read it. The first item on the list is “Do one thing at a time”. More often than not I don’t get past that first item because it reminds me to focus and go back to the task in hand.

Single-tasking is surely the fastest way to accomplish anything, despite what management gurus would have us believe.

Email me if you would like a copy of Fischli and Weiss’s list, then you too can have one for your office wall.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Getting to know me

Being a good leader has many facets. The ability to set out a vision, create a strategy, and keep everyone on course throughout the inevitable difficulties are all components of leadership. One less commonly discussed aspect of leadership is the ability to know oneself.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, whatever our role or purpose in business or in life. The key is to understand oneself well enough to know when and what to delegate, and how to manage ourselves so that we can best facilitate the work that needs to be done. Whether you work in a micro business or a multi-national conglomerate, the better you understand yourself the better you will be able to work with others.

One interesting aspect of getting to know oneself is that of becoming a role model. It is all too easy to issue instructions to others for this or the other to be done, it is much more difficult to lead from the front – to show rather than tell. It is also a great deal more effective.

Working on being a role model has the great benefit of showing up our strengths and weaknesses, highlighting with horrible ease what needs to be worked on – both within the organisation and within ourselves. Because isn’t it always true that the most difficult work to be done is inevitably within ourselves?

Monday 26 October 2009

Two very different Parisian examples of customer service

And why customer service has to be built into the system

There are two big venues in Paris that attract millions of visitors every year. They are each very different, and from a customer service point of view make a fascinating contrast.

The first, of course, is Disneyland. Disney is famed the world over for its customer service ethos.

Randy Pausch tells a lovely story, long before he ever worked for Disney, of when he visited Disneyland as a child. During a very happy day at Disneyland he and his sister decided to buy a present for their parents. They paid, what was for them a lot of money, for a lovely Disney teapot. The Disney china teapot was barely out of the shop before it slipped and was in thousands of pieces on the floor. Two very upset children stared down at their precious but broken gift. A Disney attendant had seen what had happened and suggested they take it back to the shop. But, howled the children, it was our fault, why would they replace the teapot when we have broken it? Just try, he suggested kindly. To their surprise the teapot was replaced with a smile and two happy children were able to present a Disney teapot to their delighted parents.

It’s a great story, and worthy of being passed on.

Now the second Paris venue is spectacular in a very different way. Versailles is a world away from Disneyland in so many ways, and yet also attracts visitors from around the world in vast numbers. The splendours of 18th Century France, the ambitions of the Sun King, and the sheer dazzling opulence of this gorgeous palace make it a feast for the eyes. However, the notion of customer service is lacking in just so many ways.

At a recent visit when I had cause to complain, which I did in my most reasonable French. I was met by argument, bureaucratic forms and a complete lack of will or ability to put anything right. I was told that no one had ever complained like this before (how dare I?). It felt like I was taking on the might of the whole French state instead of pointing out that I had been mislead when buying two tickets. Once I had been worn down by his complete unwillingness to do anything to improve the situation, the young French man seemed satisfied that these unreasonable English were leaving. The amount of money was tiny, and it would have been so easy to have put it right. But he was happier to see us leave whilst knowing his organisation was in the wrong, than to fix the situation.

From a business point of view, of course, it was not his fault. He had been trained to be unhelpful. He could see no benefit to either himself or to his organisation in putting things right. The systems at Versailles do not support him in making a good decision when faced with a complaint. It is shocking in today's world.

It is a stark reminder that customer service must be built into the system. You cannot expect people to work against the system and help customers; the system has to be there to show them what great customer service looks like.

Thursday 22 October 2009

An abuse of power

The UK is today without a postal service. Their 120,000 strong unionised workforce is angry at their management’s reforms of the business and so has gone on strike.

The head of the Communication Workers Union Billy Hayes believes he is in a stronger position than Arthur Scargill and the coalminers in the 1980’s. Hayes has sweetly pointed out that you cannot stockpile post. Hayes and his merry men have threatened more strikes as the festive period approaches. I'm guessing this is a man who never read How to Make Friends and Influence People.

Hayes might have forgotten that the miners’ strike did not end happily. I doubt this one will either.

The world is changing. Indeed the world has already changed. During the Great Strike of 1926, newspapers were not delivered, but there was enormous support for the miners.

Today the support is for the alternative suppliers who are prepared to deliver our mail, and outrage at the postal workers’ action. At the heart of the need for modernisation is the vast change that has swept across all forms of delivery services, namely the internet. Whilst I may not be getting any post today, my inbox is as full as ever and promotional paper mailings are simply being replaced by their electronic email equivalents.

Providing an excellent service that people want to use is the only way that this war will be won: an option the union doesn’t seem to have considered.

Holding the country to ransom, putting up prices and reducing service levels is a strategy that appears to have some serious flaws. Abusing power rarely, if ever, has a good outcome.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Putting the boot in: sustainability

As I stood in the shoe repair shop on Saturday I realised that my boots are not sustainable. They were not sustainable from the moment I bought them, even though I love them to bits. Their total lack of sustainability comes from them requiring heeling every three or four weeks. You would have thought after the years I have been taking them to be heeled it might have dawned on me how impractical the boots were, but it did not. I have been walking around in un-sustainable boots.

Sustainability is being able to keep something in balance for the long term. When something is out of balance, sooner or later something will happen to attempt to regain the balance: just as we have seen with inflated consumer spending, the recent financial crisis and subsequent recession. As we are increasingly recognising the importance of climate change, the fragility of our environment, and how to generate clean energy, sustainability is a word we need to take more notice of.

My boots made me think of my other practices that are not particularly sustainable: using the printer a little more often than I should, trying the replicate the British Library in my office, etc. etc. There are more, but I will spare my (and your) blushes.

I doubt that I am the only person who is recognising that sustainability and balance are more important to us than ever before. I think sustainability is an idea whose time has come, not only in taking control of the planet’s future, but in taking control of our own personal and business future.

As consumers we have drastically cut our spending and reassessed priorities. As businesses we are digging in, cutting back and working hard to survive during difficult times. As societies we have become more aware of cause and effect, and thanks to the state of the economy we are being given long enough to reflect on sustainability for lasting changes to be made.

Sustainability is not always a simple concept – there is plenty of opportunity to push problems around. But it is a concept that is worthy of a great deal more thought than we have given it in the past, whatever the economy is doing.

Monday 19 October 2009

6 more reasons why being tidy and organised encourages high performance

I was sent a quote recently:
Disorganization wins! (Love the mess!) - Tom Peters
Now I’m all for free speech (even opinionated free speech), but I have to say my opinion differs here. Whilst there may be some brilliant folk who work in a disorganized mess, I suspect they are few and far between. For the rest of us who want to excel in our chosen field, there are compelling reasons to be tidy and organised:
  1. You can find things. So basic, but so important! Whether it is in your filing system (or lack of it), hard disk, or the bottom of your briefcase, inability to find things is uncomfortable, annoying, inconvenient and can sometimes royally mess things up. Having a place for everything, and putting most things in their place, spreads calm and organisation. And sooner or later you will think of looking for it in your filing system.
  2. Work on current priorities. Mess and disorganisation hides out of date priorities we are unwilling to let go. My paper filing cabinet is small; holding only 15 or so files. If it doesn’t fit, I have to go through and figure out what can be thrown out. It’s a great way of ensuring I don’t have too many projects on the go at the same time, and that out of date stuff gets thrown away. If only my hard disk were that limited!
  3. Make better decisions. The late Randy Pausch was adamant that his students’ email inbox was not their To Do list. Organising, reorganising, prioritising and planning may sound like more work but it produces better results because you work on what’s important and not just what’s in front of you at this moment.
  4. Improved focus. It’s easier to focus if you have everything you need all together, without stuff pulling at your attention. I have a VERY small desk which is designed to be super ergonomic for computer users, but a BIG benefit is that I can’t have much on my desk at a time.
  5. Where there is mastery, there is no mystery. This came from the tag on my spicy tea bag, and it made me smile because it’s true. To master something you have to understand it, and you can’t understand it if it is scattered all around your office. Or am I missing something Mr Peters?
  6. It gives a sense of control. Whether it is a real or imagined sense of control, I suggest doesn’t really matter. What matters is the frame of mind in which we do our work. Clutter and disorganisation are not great reminders of the importance of turning out high quality work.
There are probably many other benefits besides the ones I have listed, and I’d love to hear of others – either for or against.

Friday 16 October 2009

Eat and sleep routines

Seth Godin wrote a short blog post the other day entitled “Make A Decision.” He suggested that imperfect decisions are better than no decision at all: quite right too.

He went on to say that we should make more decisions, and that making more decisions will make more of a difference, even if the decisions turned out to be the wrong ones. It made a neat little blog post, but I’m not at all sure he is right.

I would go as far as to say that we should work to be making fewer decisions, so that the big decisions have more room to be well thought through.

There are many things in day to day work that should be done, but are not always. These could and perhaps should be made into habits, because when they go onto autopilot they get done regardless of what else is happening. They get done faster and more efficiently. So the more things you can decide in advance must be done every day, or every week, or whatever, the less thinking is required and the more gets done.

Every time I hear of someone who has “lost the entire contents of their hard disk” and that they don’t have a backup, I wonder about their daily habits. An ex-boss used to call them “eat and sleep routines”. You wouldn’t forget to sleep, she would argue, so why forget to backup your computer? There was very little wriggle room when put like that! The same principle applied to many things she considered to be part of our core work.

Decisions are needed, and many things can’t go onto autopilot, but the things that can should. Give some thought to what should be part of your eat and sleep routine, and get more done, more easily.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Nuclear fusion - energy source for our children

As 192 nations prepare to debate What Should Be Done About Climate Change in Copenhagen, the world carries on burning coal, oil and gas and discussing targets that will not be met. Wind, wave and solar dominate the debate on renewables, unsurprising as those are the technologies we are currently working with. The future will need a better mix of energy sources and more creative thinking than we have applied in the past. The future will, however, need other technologies in addition to these renewables in order to replace the vast amounts of hydro-carbon based energy the world currently consumes.

Climate change is a long term issue, as the difficulty of weaning ourselves off carbon-based fuels is proving. It therefore seems only right that replacing the coal, oil and gas (which currently produce most of our electricity) needs a solution commensurate with the problem. France, for example, has low carbon emissions because of their high dependence on nuclear fission reactors. Whilst traditional nuclear power does not pollute the atmosphere with carbon, it does pollute the ground and oceans with radioactive waste that stays radioactive for centuries.

The promising work that is being done in nuclear fusion in the UK and elsewhere promises carbon-free power without the long-lived nuclear waste. It could be an excellent solution to a tricky problem. The only difficulty is that we haven’t got it to work yet – despite successful proof of concept work. The research needed to find answers to a host of practical problems with this difficult technology are proving time consuming and expensive.

Despite all the difficulties, there is a big prize to be scooped by a generation that has done little but use up fossil fuels as fast as they can. And it is a prize that more of us should be fighting for. We owe it to future generations who may not be able to enjoy the cheap energy that we have benefited from all our lives.

So why isn’t nuclear fusion higher on the politicians’ agendas? Why are we not thinking longer term about such important issues? Politicians may be re-elected every 4 years or so, but this beautiful world will still be here in 40, 400 or 4,000 years time. The global nuclear fusion project at Cadarache in the south of France called ITER is in its initial stages and deserves more bullish backing than we are currently giving it.

All managers know that hitting targets requires taking actions that have sufficient chance of being successful to be worth implementing. Nuclear fusion is a strong contender and needs a higher profile, more public debate, and more money.

For those with an interest in all things climate, energy and fusion, the New Scientist is giving away a free poster all about ITER this week. Getting informed about energy and climate change is surely the least we can do for the children who won’t have the vast natural reserves we have used up with hardly a thought.

Today is Blog Action Day where bloggers of the world unite to discuss a single topic and spark debate about issues of global importance. This year’s topic is Climate Change.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Lessons from the dance floor

I saw two shining examples of deliberate practice last night – both in The Royal Ballet’s performance of Mayerling.

Mayerling was choreographed by the late Kenneth MacMillan who was originally a talented ballet dancer. When he first started learning ballet as a young boy his teacher insisted that he did an hour’s practice every day. That early practice, which he did religiously, laid the foundations for his later exceptional work as a ballet dancer and then a choreographer. The complex movements and artful way Mayerling's real-life drama from 1889 was illustrated shows real expertise. MacMillan was knighted in 1983. Whilst MacMillan was sadly missing last night (he died in 1992), he was omnipresent throughout the performance.

Dancing the lead role of Crown Prince Rudolph in Mayerling last night was Edward Watson, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. He is a Royal Ballet dancer through and through, having come up through the ranks after his training at The Royal Ballet School. He has been a principal dancer since 2005 and is a self-confessed fan of MacMillan ballets. Watson is careful to get feedback on his performance from only a few trusted advisors. If they recommend changing his approach, he listens very carefully.

Whilst the concept of deliberate practice might initially appear to be more applicable to endeavours such as ballet or sport or other physical activities, it has been shown to be equally applicable to writing, writing software, playing music and many other disciplines.

When watching a wonderful performance such as The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling it is easy to think “oh these are very talented people who were always destined to be ballet dancers”. Maybe there is some truth in that, but the other side of the coin is that there is now a huge body of evidence to suggest that much hard work went into developing and improving their talent.

It is wonderful to watch anyone working at peak performance, and last night was no exception.

Monday 12 October 2009

How to get better at just about anything

Performance management is just a posh way of saying: “how do we get better at what we do?”

Assuming that what you do is important to you, your department or organisation, there is enormous benefit to be gained from improving your performance. It’s more fun to produce high quality work, rather than having work corrected or rejected. It’s also more profitable – whether you count profit in monetary or satisfaction terms.

It used to be assumed that our talents and innate capabilities determined how good we could become in a given field, but more recent research has challenged such views. It would be difficult to become exceptional at something for which you have no innate abilities, however. I would never make a world class navigator, for example: my ability to deal with shapes and spaces makes map reading a more exciting venture than was ever intended. But if you are well suited to your chosen pursuit, there is much that can be done to raise your performance above the ordinary:
  1. Practice over a long period of time. The old saying “practice makes perfect” has some truth, although it is not complete in itself. Importantly, there is no evidence that either a child or an adult can perform exceptionally well without experience and practice in their field. Myths about child prodigies conveniently leave out the practice and encouragement they were exposed to from a young age: Mozart’s music and the William sisters’ tennis prowess are good examples. Practice is important – you have to have enough experience in your field to be more than competent.
  2. Stretch yourself when you practice. Once you are competent, and have spent time practicing, just more practice is not enough – you then have to start deliberate, stretching and intensive practice. You have to move from being competent to being very good or exceptional – and that is where deliberate practice is needed. Practice changes from just doing the activity, to do doing the activity better each time. This requires thinking about what can be improved, trying new approaches and finding out what is successful and what is not. This is more tiring, more difficult and requires much more willpower than practising without thought and attention. It also requires breaking out of old habits learnt during the initial practising stage.
  3. Monitor feedback. Be systematic about monitoring your performance, and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. If you can’t or won’t measure it, you can’t improve.
  4. Work with someone better than you. Find someone who is better to make suggestions based on your performance. That is why a personal trainer works so well when you are trying to lose weight or get fit. They are able to stretch your practice, based on your performance, whilst monitoring how well you are doing. Working in a team or with a coach also has a positive correlation to improved performance for the same reasons.
  5. Benchmark your performance. Being able to compare how well (or badly) you are doing is important. This is why working in a team or with a coach works well. The competitive nature of benchmarking also has a positive correlation to high performance. League tables are a good example of this – for the motivated individual, team, department or organisation, league tables provide clear feedback on progress.

Research into expert performance has shown that improvement is slow but gradual for those that work on their performance in a determined way. Such work is not comfortable or easy, rather it pushes the individual to the edge of what they are capable of, thereby building up new experiences and new capabilities. Search and experimentation lie at the heart of expert performance; constantly pushing the limits on what is possible and what is excellent.

Friday 9 October 2009

Expertise and expert performance

One of the most fascinating concepts I have come across in a long while is that of Expert Performance. This is a body of work on how expertise is gained, and what sets experts apart from the rest. Studies have been done across a range of disciplines. Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful book Outliers referred to some of this work.

Two fascinating ideas come out of the expert performance research:

  1. It takes an average of 10 years to become expert in something

  2. Practice means deliberate practice, not doing by rote
The 10 years figure is interesting, and provides a guideline for how much time is required to master something. However, it is the “deliberate practice” concept which is most useful to us in our day to day activities. That is practice which has its prime objective of improving performance. It may sound tautological – surely all practice is designed to improve performance? Not so. It is perfectly possible to spend 1 hour practicing French verbs with half a mind on what is for dinner, or whether it will rain. Alternatively, I hour can be spent in a structured way with reviews every 15 minutes so that learning is maximised. Of course the latter is more difficult and more tiring, which is why many of us prefer to keep half a mind on dinner.

Deliberate practice means pushing the boundaries of our practice – expanding our capabilities and working on new areas within our field. It also means getting feedback on how well (or badly) we are doing, and practicing afresh in light of that feedback. To build expertise it is necessary to reflect on the processes and methods used to perform well.

This is important in performance management. Whatever we are striving to do well requires both practice and feedback, both external and internal. It means keeping a record of our performance and improvements. All of which takes effort, but the months and years pass whether or not we are gaining new skills and pushing our professional capabilities forward.

And of course deliberate practice and monitoring progress is as applicable to a business or department as to an individual. The larger the group, though, the more structured the systems need to be for providing feedback.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Caffeine-free for more energy, a clear head and better sleep

Giving up caffeine is proving more difficult than I thought. After a confession that I broke my 100-day challenge after 35 days, it’s happened again. Away from the world and with only the weather to worry me, peppermint tea wasn’t enough, so green tea filled the void (and flask). And how good it tasted! A rather long drive back also benefited from a little chemical help, and the joys of Red Bull were discovered. For anyone who is interested – that stuff really does work!

I must admit that after one embarrassing fall from grace I was all for quietly going back to my caffeine habit without another word. Except that, all the reasons I originally wanted to give it up are still there:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating after too many cuppas
After having got caffeine out of my system, my body isn’t too thrilled at it being back, with headaches being the most noticeable symptom. So I’m having another go.

Much has been written on how long it takes to form a habit, but most advice underestimates the length of time needed. Dr Maxwell Maltz published a book in 1960 where he observed that amputees took, on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of their limb. From this he deduced that people could adjust to major life changes within the same time. Later research has found that much smaller changes, such as eating fruit or walking every day, take 66 days or longer for the habit to stick. With or without all your limbs.

As for the caffeine, the energy-filled Chris Fenn has reported that oil workers on offshore oil rigs benefited from better moods, higher energy levels, improved sleep and fewer headaches as a result of giving up caffeine.

So it’s in open and shut case: to the great dismay of everyone who has to work with me, I’m back on my caffeine-free challenge. And I promise not to utter another word about it until I have successfully completed 100 days!

Monday 5 October 2009

A Highland Helping Hand

Getting to Excellent has been a little quiet over the past week due to a marked change of scenery. The hustle and bustle of Reading was swapped for a couple of weeks away in the highlands of Scotland. The contrast was palpable.

Where my days are normally spent writing business plans and specifications, highland days are spent trying to figure out the best way to keep water out of, well, just about everything. Where busyness and productivity are normally the watch words, single track roads (traffic in both directions at the same time – yikes!) and activities planned around the weather meant a complete absence of rushing.

Watching the working day of a sea eagle or the common seal involves lots of standing around doing little else but watching. It is an absorbing activity that requires full concentration. It was also a massively refreshing activity that has helped lighten the load and gladden the soul before launching into a new quarter and a new season back at work.

E-mail follows wherever one travels, so it is perfectly possible to stay in touch, but somehow the urgency dies away the longer the highlands have to penetrate the soul. As a result I have come back with memories of stags standing on hillsides, inquisitive seals and a new energy for the months ahead.

Somehow I always manage to forget that holidays help rather than hinder, so today’s posting is a reminder: go smell the roses/heather/olive trees/cacti once in a while and come back with priorities realigned and purpose reinvigorated.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Stick to your knitting

A regular reader asked what lessons could be learnt from the excellent Cafe Fish in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. It’s a good question, because not everyone can be an excellent cook, but many of us want to run excellent businesses.

I think the answer he was thinking of was more imaginative than mine. As a long standing fan of Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s “In Search of Excellence” my take would be slightly different. I think there is less creativity in getting it right – and more logic. Although many believe Peters and Waterman to be a little too long in the tooth for today’s strategists, I think one of their key messages is still as relevant as ever:

“Stick to your knitting.”
Cafe Fish was not started by two advertising executives or trainee call centre assistants; it was created by two sisters who had spent their lives in the catering business. They had grown up on the banks of Loch Fyne, famed for the excellence of its fish. In other words, before they signed the lease on the restaurant, they had a pretty good training in how to be excellent in their field. In other words, they played to their strengths.

Unfortunately they haven’t read Sunday’s Getting to Excellent blog post and called with the offer of dinner on the house, so I haven’t been back to sample their dishes again. But I have no reason to believe their tables were not as packed as they were on Sunday evening. So in this instance at least, I think that Sticking to their Knitting worked a treat.