The Importance Of A Plan B

September 8, 2017

I’m a bit of a sucker for reading business books. At least in my experience, they rarely say anything startlingly new, more often point out one aspect that may be overlooked or perhaps misunderstood and then give lots of examples for context. Nevertheless saying the same things over and again is still useful as quite often factors are forgotten or else accidentally given low priority. It’s always tempting to focus on those bits you like doing the most!

One such book I was reading recently mentioned the need, when you’re doing something new, to have a Plan B. This may seem so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. However, as an experiment, I asked a few friends (who are building startups) what their Plan B was and a clear answer wasn’t really forthcoming. I guess they were hoping it wouldn’t really be needed.

The book gave as a simple example pitching an idea for a new training course in a company. You could cold-pitch at the bottom rung of the company and stimulate interest and use this as a base to excite senior management. Alternatively you could aim for a referral to get to a decision maker straight away. The ‘If then, else’ approach to planning would be to try one and, if unsuccessful, then the other. They are quite different ways forward although with the same end result.

The point is that the options are clarified before starting an endeavour not at the end or during a project or initiative. This requires a bit of imagination and might be best carried out through conversations, brainstorming or a myriad other techniques.

An aspect of this occurs in standard business plan proposals (of which I have years of experience). The question is often asked ‘If the funding was reduced by (say) 25% what would be impact be, would it still be a viable and worthwhile project?’. This begs the question of course, as one side will be trying to reduce the funding whilst the other to increase it. It might be better to simply ask for some imaginative Plan Bs!


The Paradox of Unanimity

March 2, 2016

I’ve been on lots of committees; for projects, bids and also charity work.

So, I was interested to come across this (see here):

Under ancient Jewish law, if a suspect on trial was unanimously found guilty by all judges, then the suspect was acquitted. This reasoning sounds counterintuitive, but the legislators of the time had noticed that unanimous agreement often indicates the presence of systemic error in the judicial process, even if the exact nature of the error is yet to be discovered. They intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, most likely a mistake was made.

In a new paper to be published in The Proceedings of The Royal Society A, a team of researchers, Lachlan J. Gunn, et al., from Australia and France has further investigated this idea, which they call the “paradox of unanimity.”

And under More Examples (further down the article):

5) In many committee meetings, in today’s big organizations, there is a trend towards the idea that decisions must be unanimous. For example, a committee that ranks job applicants or evaluates key performance indicators (KPIs) often will argue until everyone in the room is in agreement. If one or two members are in disagreement, there is a tendency for the rest of the committee to win them over before moving on. A take-home message of our analysis is that the dissenting voice should be welcomed. A wise committee should accept that difference of opinion and simply record there was a disagreement. The recording of the disagreement is not a negative, but a positive that demonstrates that a systemic bias is less likely.

The Wisest One In The Room

February 11, 2016

I came across this powerful story whilst skimming through the Preface to “The Wisest One in the Room (How to Harness Psychology’s Most Powerful Insights)” by Thomas Gilovich & Lee Ross:

In late spring 1944, Allied forces were making final preparations for the momentous events of D-Day, the landing of troops on the five beaches of Normandy, code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The invasion would take place in two phases: an assault by twenty-four thousand British, American, and Canadian airmen shortly after midnight and a massive amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armored divisions at 6:30 a.m. The British commander, General Bernard Montgomery, gave the officers who would lead the assault their final briefing—a tour de force performance, thorough in its content and impeccable in its delivery.

The Supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, known to all as “Ike,” had assigned this task to “Monty” and did not do much talking himself in the final hours before the invasion. He did not reiterate details about the operation. Nor did he offer his own perspective on the larger significance of the operation or of the long struggle ahead—a struggle that would culminate in the defeat of the Third Reich. He simply walked around the room shaking hands with each and every man who would lead the assault, mindful, as they were, that many would not survive.

He recognized that their thoughts would be focused on the challenge that each of them would face in the next twenty-four hours, on the fates of their comrades-in-arms, and on the well-being of their families. He gave no hint that he was contemplating his own fate or future reputation. His wordless handshakes communicated to each officer that he understood what they were thinking and feeling, and that he honored them for what they were about to risk and what they were about to experience. He was the wisest one in the room.

I’m quite interested in the personalities and characters of WW II, thinking about it from the viewpoint of project/programme management, where there was great uncertainty both in systems and people. There are some comments on the unique personal style of Eisenhower here.

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.

Starting Projects Through Fiddling

February 6, 2014

I often start projects through fiddling around with bits and pieces of ideas and approaches I’ve previously developed. However some of these activities don’t always lead to anything substantial, just other bits and pieces. This can be fun and enlightening but I often think I’d feel better about the time and effort I put in if I ended up further down the road to ‘completion’. I expect this situation is fairly common.

On this subject, over the weekend I came across a related observation from the Macdrifter blog:

My second least favorite part of me is that I meander more than I’d like. I’m a big proponent of fiddling. All of my favorite things came out of fiddling. But I’d like to fiddle more constructively and actually finish things more often than not. I’m too easily excited and frustrated.

My plan to overcome this cultivated defect:

  • Make a plan before spending more than 10 minutes on an idea
  • Write down the goal before making a plan
  • Work on the plan every day for a week (if it takes that long)
  • Avoid scope creep and stick to the plan
  • Choose the projects wisely and review them often

I quite like the points made as this has the possibility of countering what often happens in practice. You get an idea and then investigate it a bit – the possibilities seem endless and exciting! However, as he says, if you’ve spent over 10 minutes on this, it’s really time to stop and think out a simple plan and goal (especially goal).

I think just doing this one thing would be worth it’s weight in gold, even to the extent of briefly recording alternative plan options for hindsight purposes.

The next part is discipline; actually constraining yourself to focus and deliver and not get distracted. A week is actually quite a long time, enough time to know if there’s something useful there or not.

Finally, reviewing projects often and honestly (and hopefully wisely). This is probably the area I need to improve on most.

In my opinion ‘smart reviewing’ is quite a skill. The ability to openly and honestly assess progress (and to re-evaluate how realistic goals are) – both necessarily rather fuzzy characteristics in the bigger picture – is not that common.

Related to this, see also this post on obliquity (why our goals are best achieved indirectly).

The Role Of Accuracy

December 30, 2013

“Accuracy is only important if you are aiming at the right target.”

I came across this phrase (and accompanying discussion) in a photography blog I follow, Visual Science Lab.

It’s a good point and obviously applies very generally.

The Fascination Of Failure

December 19, 2013

Yesterday, whilst browsing through a copy of the National Geographic in a waiting room, I came across an article on the role of failure in exploration (registration required).

This included (my emphasis in bold):

For most explorers, only one failure really matters: not coming back alive. For the rest of us, such tragic ends can capture the imagination more than success. Robert Falcon Scott, who died with his team after reaching the South Pole in 1912, is hailed as a hero in Britain. Australians are moved by a disastrous 19th-century south-to-north expedition that ended in death for its team leaders. These tales stick with us for the same reason our own failures do: “We remember our failures because we’re still analyzing them,” Ballard says. Success, on the other hand, “is quickly passed.” And too much success can lead to overconfidence—which in turn can lead to failure…

The business world, especially the high-tech realm with its rapid-fire start-ups and burnouts, already understands the value of negative results, if they are low-cost and noncatastrophic. To encourage entrepreneurship, the Netherlands-based ABN AMRO Bank started an Institute of Brilliant Failures. Eli Lilly and Company, the pharmaceutical giant, began throwing “R&D-focused outcome celebrations”—failure parties—two decades ago to honor data gleaned from trials for drugs that didn’t work. (Some 90 percent of all such trials fail.) Some foundations have even begun requiring grantees to report failures as well as successes.

It’s an interesting observation that failures tend to linger in the memory whilst successes can quickly disappear from view or get taken for granted, which is quite strange really and can easily lead to misbalanced assessments.