Tuesday 30 June 2009

Express appreciation; accept responsibility

Anyone who has ever organised anything with more than half a dozen people knows it can be frustrating. People working on multiple projects are a great example – different priorities often mean getting team members together can be difficult. In today’s enlightened times with flatter structures and experts in unlikely places, sticks are not a sensible option. Carrots are all well and good but genuine conflicts of interest often mean people can be placed in difficult positions. Good preparation, planning and communication, plus the ability to be flexible, come to the rescue when the going gets tough.

Yesterday I wrote about some of my frustrations with organising a meeting with 15+ people and getting everyone lined up in the same place at the same time doing approximately what they were supposed to be doing. In fact, although the turnout was relatively low, the quality and energy levels were super-high.

Everyone who had a role played their part brilliantly. The organiser of the evening was a consummate professional who made it all look so easy (artfully hiding all the hard work that had gone before). We had some terrific speeches, some truly gifted impromptu speakers and a highly enjoyable evening.

So to all my fellow Toastmasters last night: thank you!

The Toastmasters’ leadership checklist has nuggets of gold within it. Express appreciation and accept responsibility seems more than appropriate.
  • Appreciation for people who worked hard to improve their own speaking abilities, and to entertain and inform their audience.
  • Appreciation for those who are prepared to “have a go” even though the prospect of standing up in front of a group of people is truly terrifying.
  • Appreciation for those who generously share their knowledge and experience even though they are already accomplished speakers.
What a crowd, huh?

So the small amount of responsibility I assumed in helping organise the evening was paid back many times over. Isn’t that always the way?

Monday 29 June 2009

Leadership - the Toastmasters' way

“If you cheat yourself in the preparation, it will show up in your presentation.”

Jonas Gadson, DTM

Toastmasters International is an organisation for developing public speaking and leadership capabilities. Different from the red coat Master of Ceremonies Toastmasters, it started in the USA and is now in 106 countries with over 12,000 active clubs and more than 250,000 members.

I have been a member of my local club for over 4 years now and the longer I work with Toastmasters, the more I get out of it. We have a meeting tonight and I have been assigned the role of General Evaluator. I have to find evaluators for the prepared speeches and give an overall summary of the meeting. My preparation work is just about done so I am all set for tonight.

However, I already have a few things that I know I will say in my summing up. That’s because a Toastmasters meeting is no different from many other organised presentations or work meetings. The preparation starts long before the meeting – and it is the preparation that determines how well the meeting goes.

The person responsible for the overall meeting is called the Toastmaster for the Evening. The Toastmaster tonight is a very experienced speaker and a good organiser, so I know the meeting will be run well. However, he has had to cope with quite a lot of behind the scenes confusion: uncertainty about who will speak, changes of roles, etc. Not particularly unusual, but nor does it reflect particularly well on those involved.

Toastmasters have always had a strong focus on leadership – and this is their checklist on how to be a good leader. I think it is a solid checklist.

  • Give more than you expect others to give.
  • Combine optimism and perseverance.
  • See everyone as a diamond in the rough.
  • Express appreciation; accept responsibility.
  • Keep your ego in check.
  • Show respect for the people around you.
  • Treat team members as family.
  • Be a source of inspiration.
  • Stress cooperation, not competition.
  • Maintain a sense of humour.

It is a useful reminder for me tonight in accepting change as inevitable, whilst striving for high standards in a club that is already renowned for its leadership abilities.

It is highly likely that in a meeting involving 15 or more different roles there will be changes to the original plan and last minute drop outs. But the two-pronged approach of Preparation and Positive Leadership help all meetings run well – not just Toastmasters’ evenings.

Valuable reminders for participants as well as leaders.

Friday 26 June 2009

Going green: a confusing business

We are all going green - environmentally green that is. But do we know why? Or how well we are doing? Or indeed, how much is enough.

Yes, we know about carbon emissions. Yes, we know about climate change. No, we don’t want polar bears to go extinct. But these are all relatively vague notions. We can’t see carbon emissions. We quite like it when it’s warm and sunny. But making the link between global warming, polar bears and switching off the lights when we leave a room doesn’t always happen. Wind turbines are wildly popular, but we are pretty much opposed to nuclear power stations; without having clear facts on either.

Am I being unfair? It’s not that I think we haven’t got a grasp on this because we are stupid; more that we are not being given clear data. The green revolution is a confusing business – and little is being done to make it less confusing.

Data, data, everywhere
Don’t get me wrong - I am not saying is that there is a shortage of facts and figures. We overdose on them – they are sprinkled like pepper through newspaper articles, web sites, and news bulletins. All utterly convincing and designed for effect.

Only recently I went to a meeting about London’s energy issues. The headline ran:
London is responsible for around 8% of the UK’s emissions, producing 44 million tonnes of CO2 each year.
It sounded reasonable enough. The evening started with some facts and figures: London is home to 7.5 million people for example. Hang on a minute – that’s 12.5% of the UK’s population. Then you have to add in the effect of tourists, commuters and those passing through the airports, tube network and railway stations. So if our most populous city is producing less than its fair share of emissions, doesn’t that mean that London is already doing pretty well? Of course London doesn’t have a power station, or heavy industry, both of which spew out carbon by the aircraft load.

So I am left with no benchmark as to whether London is doing well or badly in the carbon battle. As the policymakers, scientists and business people who also attended didn’t say, I’m guessing they didn’t know either.

Clear data are important
Having a straightforward and consistent idea of how well or badly we are doing is important. It is crazy to have to do intellectual gymnastics in order to understand the effect of our behaviour on our purses and the planet. And when the experts can’t add it all up, something is badly wrong.

The debate about carbon emissions is everywhere at the moment – from how we create jobs to saving polar bears. Much is without quantifying the problem at either a local, national or global level. So we can’t be surprised when Porsches still overtake me at high speed on the M4 and people don’t insulate their lofts.

Thursday 25 June 2009

The tide has turned

What happens when you try to generate electricity by putting a wind turbine in the water?

The answer turns out to be 1.2MW and a few grey hairs. Peter Fraenkel, the technical brains behind SeaGen spent a fascinating hour or so taking a crowd of engineers through the technical and commercial difficulties of designing a world first. SeanGen at Strangford Lough is the world’s first tidal electricity generator and it is now producing and selling its electricity.

It is a fascinating concept and I am not being entirely serious when I say it’s a wind turbine in the water, although it does work on similar principals. Two huge turbines are able to operate bi-directionally in order to capture energy from the ebb and flood of the tides.

The difficulties of designing and installing something that operates in fast tidal currents are substantial and the team at
Marine Current Turbines have more than their share of war stories to tell. The day we broke a 16m blade had to be one of the best. Strong enough to hang 5 buses off, it was not strong enough to withstand the power of the tides when it was tilted the wrong way due to a systems fault. But this is clearly a company with a steely determination and Fraenkel’s tales of the unexpected demonstrated time and again that nothing would get in their way.

It’s a story of British engineering at its best.

Now that commercial electricity is being generated from SeaGen, however, new issues raise their heads above the water. Scaling up the concept and ensuring that profits are made out of the enormous monetary and technical effort that has gone into it are at least as challenging as what has gone before. It would be nice to think that this plucky British company will be handsomely rewarded for their substantial contribution to our sustainable energy options. Only time will tell. But after what they have come through so far I suspect they will put up a pretty good fight.

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Churchill, the energy crisis, and inspiring action. What a day!

Three things happened to me yesterday that made me think about great leaders. Or more specifically, what it takes to inspire action when it’s needed.

Firstly I found myself sitting in the sunshine next to London’s Churchill Museum and the Cabinet War Rooms. I’ve never visited and couldn’t yesterday because I was too late. With half an hour to spare I simply watched the world go about its business. Tourists, civil servants taking a quick smoking-break and security guards watching over H M Treasury are an eclectic lot. But it was Churchill’s achievements that occupied my mind: how he galvanised not just the government and the military, but the whole country into doing what was necessary to win the war.

Musings on Churchill were not reducing CO2 emissions, however, which was the focus of the debate I was due to attend across the road at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

Livewire Isabel Dedring from the Mayor’s office kicked off the evening stressing the importance of reducing emissions, and the leading role that London sees itself playing. She went through the variety of initiatives that were needed from managing waste, insulating homes and making City Hall more environmentally acceptable. Despite massive political will from this clearly capable lady and her boss, progress appears to be agonisingly slow. The difficulty of convincing people to make the simplest changes like insulating their lofts, even though grants are available and it will save them money, is indicative of how big a mountain there is to climb. But Boris with his electric car, and Isabel with her brains, are clearly a team to watch.

My evening ended with Churchill, though. Driving home I was listening to Dr Peter Sandman talking about panic and the swine flu pandemic. He talked about how leaders often get it wrong when trying to avert panic. Denying the problem, or pacifying people can create panic instead of action.

He also talked about Churchill and how he got the tone just right. He did not say: “don’t worry – its all going to be fine – I’ve got it under control.” Whilst that might have averted panic it would certainly not have inspired action. What he did was send out a message of deep concern. He managed to convey the severity of the situation whilst inspiring confidence in this plans. He also made it clear that everyone’s efforts would be needed.

The UK is putting some of their best scientific, engineering and political brains to work on the problems of CO2 emissions and global warming, yet many of us routinely leave lights on and don’t think about our energy usage.

What struck me was that the principals of inspiring action are common: whether you are trying to win a war, lower CO2 emissions, survive the recession, change a business’s strategy, or inspire a project team. The difficulty is that they are not that prevalent.

Friday 19 June 2009

Performance, mood and tiredness

There appears to be little evidence that a good mood positively affects performance. If that were not enough, research suggests that a bad mood can produce better performance. Watcha know?

Not only that, but researchers think that performance and mood are not adversely affected by a gradual reduction in sleep. In an experiment, sleep was reduced over a 6 – 8 month period, to about 5 hours per night, with no measurable behavioural effects. Whatever you do, please do not mention this to anyone who knows me – having the alarm go off at 6am is quite bad enough!

I can’t tell you what bad news this is to a chronically-positive-sleep-loving person like me. But isn’t it interesting? It appears to fly in the face of what I (mostly) experience for myself. When I’m in a great mood, I get loads done, and when I am very tired, I’m both unhappy and unproductive.

However, I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t admit to those times when I’ve been in a bad mood, but still been productive. Or had a dreadful night’s sleep but still got loads done. When I am under pressure I can still do good work even though I feel dreadful. And, dare I say it, there are times when I am in a good mood, have had loads of sleep, but somehow fail to set the world on fire.

So I draw some rather depressing conclusions. Whilst I would prefer to be well rested and happy, neither appears to be particularly necessary to high performance: until I can find some contradictory evidence, of course.

Any discussion about sleep, mood and performance would not be complete without mentioning chemical helpers. After years of being a caffeine-free zone I am back to drinking green tea by the swimming pool. I don’t drink coffee, but green tea has more than enough caffeine. And, yes, I think it helps to stay alert and improve concentration. It won’t be news to many of you that researchers have found Red Bull to be positively correlated with better concentration and performance. I’ve never tried the stuff myself, having scared everyone witless with my experiments with energy-boosting Guarana powder. Caffeine and Guarana certainly have the disadvantage that they can disrupt sleep, causing more, rather than less, tiredness. I imagine Red Bull would do the same.

So I guess any attempt to gradually reduce sleep would need to done without alcohol, caffeine, Red Bull or Guarana. But would it result in better or worse performance? I’ve got a particularly busy time coming up – I wonder whether now is a good time to give it a go?

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Follow me

If the title of this blog post sounds like a car commercial, there would be a reason for that. It was taken from a car brochure. I’ve been to have a look at the Toyota Prius to get an idea of what it’s all about. There is a new one coming out in August that promises to be a significant improvement of Toyota’s current model.

This is particularly noteworthy from a performance management perspective:
  • Firstly the government’s ambitious targets for CO2 emissions are just that – ambitious. They have signed us up for something that we currently have no way of meeting.
  • Secondly, the UK government are incentivising us to get rid of our old gas-guzzling motors to drive something more eco-friendly (£2000 scrappage scheme).
  • Thirdly, it seems to be working.
Manufacturers are rising to the challenge. Toyota has a stated aim of “zero emissions”. Like the government, I don’t think they know how they are going to get there yet, but they are making some initial promising steps. Also, it appears that yesterday’s prestige cars are indeed being traded in for more eco-friendly models. I’m sure this is more to do with commerce rather than wanting to save the planet, but linking the two makes absolute sense.

So Toyota’s Prius – a “hybrid” - is a very interesting car. Working partially on battery, and partially on petrol, it takes some first steps into a lower emissions world. It delivers 72 mpg – double the performance of my car, and ahead of the iconic Smart Car (65 mpg for the MHD). It’s also made with the end-game in mind – 85% can be recycled when you have finished driving it. Clever stuff.

What is even more clever is how Toyota have managed to do it again. With the world in recession, car makers are having a terrible, terrible time. Toyota, however, is bucking the trend. Their showroom is busy. They have new cars on order and their staff are glad they don’t work for a competitor.

My information about how Toyota manages their business goes back to Liker’s book “The Toyota Way”. I am sure people must be researching the new developments – anyone know of more recent information?

Monday 15 June 2009

Saving energy

I gave a speech about saving energy the other evening. I compared wasting energy to wearing fur coats.

When I was young a mink or fox fur coat was considered a status symbol. It sounds ridiculous now – a mink coat would be about as stylish as wearing a string of sausages around your neck. But 20 or more years ago it took some hard hitting tactics to get the rich and stylish to change their ways.

The analogy was designed for effect – no one today would consider such attire. But we do boil more water than we need in our kettles, we do waste petrol, and we do leave lights on unnecessarily. I suggested these are today’s fur coats. Acceptable in their time, but an indulgence the world can no longer tolerate.

Anyone who has taken more than a passing interest in this blog will have seen my baby-step interest in petrol consumption. For all you blokes this will have been kindergarten stuff – you were brought up with mpg and 0-60 conversations. I have to confess to having always thought it the dullest topic on the planet. But that’s because I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet: I can afford to think it dull. I live in a country with a good electricity infrastructure, good roads, a reasonably stable economy and petrol prices that I can afford. No wonder I had no interest in miles per gallon.

But the amount of petrol I use is no longer about what I can afford. It’s about what the planet can sustain. The argument isn’t particularly easy, because it’s likely that I won’t feel the effects of peak oil in my lifetime. Stopping me driving where I want to, when I want to, isn’t sustainable either.

So the answers have to be new ones. And there are signs that answers are starting to come, albeit slowly. I’ve test driven a new car: not one, unfortunately, that I will be buying in the near future, but one that holds out the promise of a cleaner tomorrow. I’ll tell you more next time.

Thursday 11 June 2009

The Great Climate Changing Debate

The end of the world is nigh! We are all going to die. Or fry. Or get 2 degrees warmer. Or something. Anyway, it’s not good, and Something Has To Be Done.

The Great Climate Debate at Reading University had a number of eminent scientists, researchers and thinkers; all sharing their views. The debate was about geo-engineering, or Playing God as it might be more succinctly described. Geo-engineering is all about manipulating the earth’s climate or atmosphere so as to moderate global warming. It doesn’t fix things; it just slows things down or reduces the effect. But it has to be large-scale - geo-engineering is not about tinkering – only grand gestures have any chance of doing good.

Unhelpful flippancy aside, it appears that something does indeed have to be done. Whilst the debate about the climate goes on, there is little doubt that we are pumping unhealthy amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And there is no immediate likelihood of us stopping – we like to light and heat our homes, we like driving wherever and whenever we want to. So we have to look at all options. The question is which ones, and to what degree do we fund them?

Do we paint the roads and buildings white? Well, no. As it turns out we inhabit too small an area of the earth’s surface for that to be useful. What about pumping sea-water into the clouds? Yes – good idea – but it needs money for research and how reversible is it? It is certainly a novel idea to cool down the planet - a bit like giving it a cold shower every now and again.

All of this is based on modelling what we think might happen if we go on as we are at present. Of course there are lots of assumptions in this – not least of which is that we will go on as we are now. This is a big assumption, because we may not. Energy prices might increase to the point where we start switching off lights we don’t need. Or new, cleaner ways of generating electricity might come on stream. I’m thinking of nuclear fusion, of course, which is admittedly still some years away, but so is all this geo-engineering.

What was most impressive about the debate was both the quality of the professional presentations, and the heat of discussion afterwards. Forgive the pun, but people really did feel strongly. There was enormous disagreement about how to move forward, but then I think that’s true of the energy debate overall. But people were certainly engaged in the issues. It was a thought-provoking and very worthwhile evening.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Driving data

It’s been quite a while since I last drove a gas-guzzling car. My little car was chosen for fuel-efficiency and low CO2 emissions. So I thought I would look good when I did my “driving carefully” experiment.

At first it wasn’t difficult to get into the mind-set of thinking ahead, braking less and driving more slowly, and for the most part I did OK. Trouble was, there were a few times when I was late for an appointment and I reverted to my old ways. Also, most of my journeys were relatively short - 10 miles or so – and on roads with roundabouts and traffic lights, which I’m sure contributed to the less than brilliant result.

So – what was the outcome? I filled the car a week or so ago and have driven 304 miles. When I filled up a couple of days ago I put 38.3 litres into the tank.

So on 38 litres of petrol, or 8.36 gallons, I have got about 36 miles per gallon out of the car – hardly a star performance.

Some cars let you see your average miles per gallon as you are driving, and that must be useful. I don’t have that gadget on my car. However I will try and monitor my petrol consumption over the next few tanks to see if I can improve on 36 mpg.

This calculation wasn't particularly intuitive. Looking up how many litres in a gallon wasn’t difficult, but it took some proactive thought. Even the new (in so many senses of the word) Toyota Prius, boasts its fuel consumption as 72 mpg, although they know all their customers will be filling up in litres. If we are going to buy fuel in litres, shouldn’t we measure its performance in litres?

Monday 8 June 2009


Water has an undeniably calming effect; some of my earliest and best memories are by the water. Paddling in the sea, picnicking by a fast river; favourite places returned to again and again as a youngster. On a hot summer’s day the imagination is set free and a child’s mind runs away with all the possibilities that water holds.

It was a child-like water nymph that swam into my consciousness on Friday evening. In a cold and damp London, miles away from the sea, I was swept into Ondine’s watery world. An audience, that had long ago forgotten innocent play, was surprised and captivated with this smiling, swimming nymph who was impossible to catch and impossible to ignore. She stole the hero’s heart and together we disappeared above and below the water to witness the tragedies that only water nymphs can know.

The Royal Ballet’s Roberta Marquez danced like a nymph falling in love for the first and last time. Ballet has the ability to tear at the heart-strings without a word: letting us feel the joy of love, and the agony of betrayal. She danced with lightness and mischievousness, opposite a hero that couldn’t take his eyes off her.

Like the choppy waters of the sea, the corps de ballet was fast and furious demonstrating a precision in their dancing that was just breathtaking. The Lord of the Mediterranean, the jealous Berta, and the Divertissements were all danced so well by a company that can hold its own on any of the world’s stages.

Ondine was a ballet I had not seen before, or seen so long ago that I had forgotten it. But Friday evening’s performance will be remembered for a long time as something exceptional. I know I always say that, because it is difficult not to enjoy one of the world’s great ballet companies, but maybe the sun, the moon and the stars all lined up on Friday evening to make it something special.

I want to believe that what I saw on Friday had nothing to do with anything as mundane as performance management. Logically I know that isn’t true. The hours of practice, the high standards set by the company, and the management that goes into each and every show must be like the management of any other business. I don’t go to the ballet nearly as often as I would like, but on the occasions I do go I have never seen a ragged performance. Which makes me think their performance management is anything but an afterthought. It is an integral way of how the Royal Ballet does business.

A shocking thought.

Friday 5 June 2009

Little by little

I met up with a good friend last night. She has been having a rough time recently, so we went for a run to raise our spirits. Afterwards we sat and admired her beautiful garden in the evening sunshine. As we chatted it occurred to both of us that it is the little things that make all the difference; the seemingly small things we do every day that have such a big impact on our lives and our work.

Not going for a run, not doing the things we should do, day after day, ends up being a bigger problem than they were on any one particular day.

Performance management is based on exactly that principle. By deciding where you want to get to, and the actions that are needed to get you there, bit by bit you work towards the goal. It works just the same whether you are a giant corporation, or an individual.

Because it was me, and because performance management works so well, and because it was such a beautiful day, we decided a chart was needed to log walks and runs. The chart would keep things on track and keep the feel good factor flowing. Of course we felt great after the run so were tempted to make it a daily goal, but we are realists so for now it’s a weekly goal. Come rain or shine. Hail or snow.

So if you see two particularly gorgeous women running (OK – jogging) round the Oxfordshire countryside, look out for a performance management chart full of positive marks. Little by little, achieving goals, and getting to a better place.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

The 5 P's of perfomrance management

We are all familiar with 5 P’s of marketing: People, Place, Product, Price, and Promotion. A useful checklist, but a blank canvass on which you can paint almost anything.

These urgent and recessionary times call for a tougher approach. Here are my five P’s of Performance Management (aka Getting Things Done):
  • Plan: pay attention to what’s important, and set quantifiable performance standards.
  • Practice: a plan is useless until it is implemented.
  • Praise: yourself or others when your get the right results. People make the difference and need to understand what constitutes a job well done.
  • Persistence: with thorough preparation and planning you can afford to persevere until you reap the rewards. Poor preparation and planning always sows doubt and uncertainty, and a tendency to bolt before your horse crosses the finish line.
  • Patience: have none of it. Refine, polish, and generally improve your approach until it produces the goods. Patience is overrated and completely different to persistence.
As Thomas Edison apparently pointed out:
"Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits".
Or as Napolean Hill is credited with saying:

"Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable
combination for success."

A more succinct version of my less patient offering.

I came across super-tough advice for business leaders in an old management article. Punch-ups (competition isn’t pretty), Poaching (wisely), Protect (your position), cultivate Paranoia, Pride (in the business) and Pulverise (not dissimilar to my Persistence idea). I wonder if the author was an ex-boxer?