Leadership Stories

March 21, 2014

Whilst exploring my local library, I came across an interesting book by Gavin Esler ‘Lessons from the Top: How Successful Leaders Tell Stories to Get Ahead – and Stay There’ (published in 2012). Gavin Esler is a well-known presenter with Newsnight on BBC2. His journalistic experiences span over 30 years and through this he has interviewed a wide variety of influential people in politics, business and the arts.

At the end of the book (which I started with) he gives sixteen tips which he finds ‘striking and useful when considering successful leaders’ and which are applicable to everyone not just global stars.

Tip Two is:

Every leader tells a leadership story in three parts: ‘Who Am I?’ ‘Who Are We?’ and ‘What is our Common Purpose’ You must learn to answer the ‘Who Am I?’ question adequately, or the others do not matter.

And as an aid to doing the above, he gives Tip Three:

Remember the Earwig. All successful leaders create their own memorable way of answering the ‘Who Am I?’ bit of the leadership story succinctly. Think of it as the headline you would like to see attached to your name, or the epitaph that would fit on your tombstone.

The ‘Earwig’ he mentions is the story you can’t get out of your head and so won’t forget.

After reading this I thought about the leadership-type talks I’d been to recently and none seemed to resonate with Tip Two (at least as far as I can recall). There was often talk of the latter two parts ‘Who Are We?’ and ‘What is our Common Purpose?’ but little of the (more difficult) ‘Who Am I?’.

The ‘Who Am I?’ is presumably intended to build up the trust and confidence that is the bedrock for what follows. That’s a pretty tough task to pull off well, particularly with a cynical or demanding audience eg a company or organisation going through difficult times. There’s also the opposite problem, that it may in fact come over as quite believable but is in fact fundamentally false and contrived.

Anyway, it’s an interesting point of view and an important topic so I’ll write more on his thoughts later.

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Project Review Experiments

March 17, 2014

My friend, David Gurteen, who is a major name in the field of knowledge management, has recently proposed an interesting variation on the idea of post project reviews.

After most projects there is a review of sorts with the aim of learning from the experience, for the individuals and team involved but also (hopefully) for the wider organisation. There are many pros and cons to such reviews so coming up with new variations or approaches is very worthwhile.

David’s idea is (details here, please note that it’s a work in progress)

The Knowledge Cafe Philosophy takes a different approach by assuming that until people start to talk openly about how the project went many of the problems and missed opportunities and insights will not be surfaced. It takes group conversation, people talking freely and openly in small groups of 3 or 4 to achieve this. It’s not that the more formal approach does not work, it’s that it does not surface the deeper, more important stuff.

Although not quite the same, this idea reminded me of the time when I was asked by a Company Director to try and find out why, even though they were carrying out exhaustive bid reviews, similar mistakes were still being repeated. It was an important topic, the bids were complex and high value and their success was critical to the business. The bids were in different market areas so there was no immediate transfer of ‘technical lessons learned’, the issues were more people-centric and qualitative.

I started by reviewing the relevant project information; in one typical case the project review had been an off-site multi-day facilitated event involving all the key people (quite a feat in itself). Leading issues were apparently teased out and ambitious ways forward discussed and agreed and partially implemented.

However, quite separately, I decided to interview (more accurately have an informal conversation with) all the people mentioned as well as a sample of others. As you can imagine, everyone had their own quite different view on things. This process wasn’t completely straightforward as everyone was initially very suspicious of me – what was my agenda, why was I doing this – they’d already had exhaustive bid reviews?

However after explaining that there was no agenda (and why) and that no names would get mentioned, viewpoints actually flowed quite readily. Some had even felt so strongly about the bid that they had written up their own personal notes on the topic which were really illuminating (none of this was part of the final project material). The point is, the role of the ‘trusted and informal’ conversation was quite invaluable. 

Two aspects stood out for me:

The role of politics and power: these aspects obviously have to be acknowledged – it won’t go away. Careers and reputations were on the line, so an element of ruthlessness would always be around and this will obviously flavour decision making. This is a very delicate point to handle.

Overambitious ways forward and weak follow-up: my own view was that, instead of re-imagining a perfect organisation, it would be better to think up some ‘smart’ incremental improvements that would inspire people and get them to believe in the possibility of change and hope/encourage that there would be a natural viral development through the company. This would go alongside the more standard changes (improvement of processes, better knowledge sharing etc).

There are many different types of projects and organisations, so my example is just but one so no general remarks can be drawn, but in many conversations with colleagues over the years the above points seem to regularly crop up (obviously the extent of the two factors above will depend on the project).

At the highest level it’s politics that dominates and at other levels it will be something quite different, perhaps something technical (and much easier to discuss). However the point is that all these aspects get mashed up together, sometimes in very complex ways.

The other point that came out was that, even though there was a wide diversity of views, all parties had a very strong vested interest in a good result. I think this was the main reason that people opened up in the conversations. Who wants to spend a year or more on a bid for it to fail and with no real learning taking place, instead an even deeper entrenchment of negative views?

I’m not convinced that a Knowledge Cafe would be able to completely get over some of these very challenging problems but it might have encouraged a more honest and deeper appreciation of what actually went on. There still needs to be some new and practical ideas on how to best benefit from the insights obtained but that’s a separate matter.

Of course, in the story above a series of one-on-one informal conversations is not the same as David’s small group conversations but a mix of the two might be another interesting way forward.

Update: I drafted the above post a couple of weeks ago and, by a useful coincidence, David has in the meantime developed some of his ideas further, in particular, widening their scope. It is bannered under the title ‘Conversational Leadership’. Interestingly, this approach might go some way to addressing the two sticking points above.

He has organised a meeting at Westminster Business School, London on Wednesday 26 March, 18:00 – 21:00 to collectively discuss this topic. It’s a free event and you can read more about it here as well as registering for it.


Attributing Quotes

March 16, 2014

Quite often you see the same quote attributed to a variety of people. Also, sometimes original quotes get rewritten into modern versions to increase impact, further complicating matters.

I was reading about this recently in a discussion forum and someone amusingly summed it up as:

“Never believe quotes you read on the internet.” – Winston Churchill

And yes, someone then discussed whether this quote was true or not…


How To Be Extremely Productive

March 14, 2014

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Productivity Mindmap – Extreme Case!

I’m a bit of a sucker for posts with titles such as the above, even though I know there’s no simple answer.

However I’ve always noticed that if an emergency crops up or a tricky business deadline, then focusing and delivering what really matters is usually alarmingly easy. So you can potentially learn a lot from these and other more extreme situations.

This one caught my eye (see here):

Since the beginning of the year I lived in 7 different countries, spend 3 months in a remote village, and ended up in another mega city. If you want to travel and get work done at the same time, you have to be more productive. Here is the summary of a year of my experimenting with productivity in one mindmap (see above).


Cultivating Innovation And Deciding What To Fund

March 6, 2014

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Chart of Nesta spend from their Annual Report 2012-13

I spent over 15 years of my career involved with bids, ranging from the small to the very large. They were all in the hi-tech area and focused on innovative solutions to a wide variety of business problems. Sometimes they involved bids for internal funding, to develop a new product idea, but more usually for external project funding (and usually in alliance with other parties).

Over this period I had experience from both sides of the fence: reviewing bids and giving feedback and submitting bids and receiving feedback. It’s a tricky area to get right: not to waste time on putting together a bid that will not get anywhere (for a host of reasons, which are often only clear afterwards, if at all) to the opposite, of being clear as why you’ve (really) won over other competing bids.

In the light of this I was interested to read about the approaches the charity Nesta are taking in cultivating innovative approaches in the areas that they focus on, including social innovation.

Nesta is a very interesting organisation and more info on them and their projects can be found from their site. In summary (here):

Nesta (formerly NESTA, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) is an independent charity that works to increase the innovation capacity of the UK.

The organisation acts through a combination of practical programmes, investment, policy and research, and the formation of partnerships to promote innovation across a broad range of sectors.

Nesta was originally funded by a £250 million endowment from the UK National Lottery. The endowment is now kept in trust, and Nesta uses the interest from the trust to meet its charitable objects and to fund and support its projects.

The key points so far are (with some extracts, see here for details):

1. Ideas matter, teams matter more

We’ve tried different approaches. Pitching sessions are useful, but you need to allocate enough time to get beyond the pitch and have a conversation; and one conversation is never really enough.

2. Information has a cost

One technique that seems to work is conference calls where we answer questions and clarify our goals before we ask teams to tell us their proposals.

3. Every contact should aim to add value

Often that’s about designing the selection process in a way that increases the knowledge or skills of the teams applying. We’ve held workshops on how to prototype and test ideas, connected people with coaches and experts, and supported teams to develop their theory of change.

4. Reach out for different perspectives

We haven’t found a simplistic formula that we can apply to our selection processes (if you know of one, please get in touch). What we do know is that we get much better decisions when we seek out different perspectives.

5. Expect iteration, know when to walk away

Sometimes the right thing to do is walk away; never easy after you’ve invested not only money, but your time and reputation into an innovation.


Thinking Of Facebook As A Disease

March 4, 2014

From an article in the (free) online maths magazine +plus:

If Facebook is a disease, then most of us know the symptoms: obsessive checking, a compulsion to share trivialities, and confusion about what’s real and what isn’t. But if Facebook is a disease, then why not use epidemiological methods to try and predict its future? This is what two scientists from Princeton University, New Jersey, have done. And they predict that Facebook is heading for a “rapid decline”: between 2015 and 2017 it will lose 80% of the users it had when it was at its peak in 2012…

Mathematical modelling is a tricky business, of course, because everything depends on the underlying assumptions. As the statistician George Box once said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” But Cannarella and Spechler did test the strength of their model on a social networking site that has already all but died out: MySpace. And they claim that it simulates MySpace’s life cycle well enough to validate the model. But if you try you could probably come up with plenty of arguments why Facebook and Myspace are two different kettle of fish, or other reasons why the model may not be valid…

Facebook responded (very quickly and amusingly) to the Princeton paper – see here:

In keeping with the scientific principle “correlation equals causation,” our research unequivocally demonstrated that Princeton may be in danger of disappearing entirely…

As data scientists, we wanted to give a fun reminder that not all research is created equal – and some methods of analysis lead to pretty crazy conclusions.

Either way, and ignoring vested interests, it prompted some interesting thoughts!