It’s not what you think

Almost every day I’m reminded that what I think is not important. It matters more what other people think.

This applies in so many ways.

For example, it could be that you’re talking to your children about their school work and how important it is to achieve good grades.  But if your kids don’t think it’s important they won’t make the necessary extra effort!

Or perhaps you’re dealing with a supplier. You’ve given them a due date but they’re thinking, ‘Oh well, last time we were a couple of weeks late and they didn’t mind, so it won’t matter if we’re late this time’.

Or you might be having difficulty with a member of the team who is failing to follow a routine or procedure. They don’t think the routine is important, so it slips their mind sometimes. Timesheets, expense reports, customer visit reports – these can all fall into the ‘unimportant’ category.

Take another example –  you’re working with a customer on a development project. You think you’re making great progress, but the customer doesn’t see it that way.  Perhaps this is because you are focusing on elements of the project they don’t see as critical?

There’s a link between all these different scenarios of course. It’s all about communication.

I believe I‘ve quoted the great writer, George Bernard Shaw, in this space previously. He said –

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

Communication is a two-way process. Putting an announcement on the noticeboard, or even sending an email, is not communication. These only become communication when the announcement or the email are read (and understood) by others.

You need to enter into a dialogue with the other party to confirm that your message has not only been received, but understood.

If all you do is broadcast you’re only halfway there.


There’s no smoke without fire

‘There’s no smoke without fire’ is a phrase I remember from my childhood, but these days it seems to have fallen into disuse – or at least into much less frequent use.


If you have a wood-burning stove at home, as I do, you can observe the truth of this statement quite literally. If the ashes from the previous fire are still producing smoke, you can make a new fire by adding more fuel.


In business, you need to follow the smoke trail to its source. You need to find the ashes. If they are smouldering, fan them into flame or put them out. Don’t just leave them!


Fires, from a business perspective, can be good or bad! One trail of smoke might be an increase in customer complaints. If you don’t measure this, or worse, if you are measuring the levels of complaint but not getting the message they’re telling you, you will have a fire on your hands. And that could be destructive!


If you don’t find the ashes and make sure they have been put out, you are kidding yourself about their potential to re-ignite.


Continuing with this metaphor, another example can be found when good people leave the business. Exit interviews will often shed light on situations, events or people, but if you don’t utilise the feedback this provides, you’ll be wasting the time spent in the interview.


More difficult to spot are the trails of smoke that lead to ashes you want to fan into life. These could be process improvements or innovative ideas that haven’t been fully formed and presented. That’s when you must encourage, coax and cajole the embers to leap into life.


Take the time to spot and follow the smoke trails.


Easy and right may not be the same thing

In life and in business you may find yourself having to make a choice between doing the easy thing and doing the right thing.

Doing the easy thing is having that second biscuit, or not saying anything when a colleague steps over the line. Or it might be agreeing with the customer – when you know they’re making a poor choice.

It’s more difficult to decline the extra biscuit and get some exercise.

It’s more difficult to confront the colleague and deal with their poor behaviour.

It’s more difficult to disagree with the customer and help them make a better choice.

The difficulty with all these examples is that they require a degree of confrontation. We see confrontation as a prelude to conflict.

Most of us don’t like conflict and go out of our way to avoid it!

Taking the easy way out offers short-term gain but may well lead to long-term pain.

The colleague who steps over the line once is likely to do so again. It could be that the rest of the team see this and, almost by default, the line is moved – what was previously considered unacceptable behaviour now becomes acceptable.

The customer who makes a poor choice is going to regret it. That regret will probably lead to resentment – it’s your fault, so you get the blame.

That biscuit goes straight to your waistline and stays there!

It’s much better for you and for your business if you focus on doing the right thing, not just the easy thing.

Over time, your colleagues will respect you and your customers will value your frank opinion. You will develop a reputation for integrity and honesty.

Businesses that have that kind of reputation find it easier to sell their products or services. They always know the difference between ‘easy’ and ‘right’.


Disagree with respect

I’ve observed some worrying trends in meetings I’ve been attending lately.  It seems people are afraid to speak their minds during a meeting for fear of being seen as disrespectful. Another trend is that voicing disagreement is seen as a sign of treasonable disrespect and leads to a shouting match!

Neither of these trends is conducive to good business conduct.

Robust characters exist in every business. They’re naturally inclined to dominate the discussion, brushing disagreements aside.

Timid people who fail to get their point across can become frustrated. This probably results in them leaving the business sooner or later.

A good chairperson will encourage the timid ones and rein in more robust individuals, to ensure a balanced debate in which all points of view are heard.

If you listen to debates in the House of Commons or House of Lords,  MPs and members use arcane-sounding language such as ‘My honourable friend’.  But using such language is designed to ensure that disagreements are not taken to be disrespectful.

You’ll also hear phrases such as ‘With respect, I disagree’, but these words are often spoken in a way that contradicts their meaning!

As a business leader, it’s your job to maximise contributions and input from all members of the team – and that includes allowing them to disagree with you.

If you invite constructive criticism of yourself and your actions, you’re setting an example to everyone in the team. There’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism and it’s not disrespectful or insulting to disagree with what other people are saying.

An additional benefit of this approach is that your ideas and suggestions will be examined in much more detail. As the saying goes, ‘If you really want to understand something, teach it’.

Being open and inclusive in this way has a positive impact, both on team culture and the atmosphere in meetings. Encouraging criticism from team members stimulates openness. Creating an open environment means that others (including junior staff and those who are timid) feel able to volunteer their thoughts and ideas too.

Which is easier – trying to do it all on your own or getting others to contribute?

You get paid to make decisions

If you’re in a leadership role, one of the things your team expect from you and need you to do is make decisions. They want you to provide leadership. In very simple terms, what this means is that you tell them what’s happening next, and what direction they need to take.

If you don’t make decisions, this will give rise to frustration and annoyance. The team are ready and waiting to go, but until you tell them which direction to take, they can’t start!

Of course, you should take time to gather the necessary evidence before coming to a decision, but don’t fall into the ‘analysis paralysis’ trap.

Equally, don’t be rushed into making the wrong decision by impatient team members who may not understand all the complexities involved.

However, not every decision requires lengthy consideration!

If the consequences of getting a decision wrong are small, you can make quick, almost instinctive decisions. It’s when the consequences are substantial that you should take your time and gather evidence before arriving at a decision.

Think about the consequences first.

Once you’ve made your decision, the next step is to communicate it. Until you share the decision, you might as well not have made it!

When you share a decision with others, it’s often (but not always) a good idea to share the rationale behind it as well.  By doing this, your team can appreciate the factors you’ve taken into account in reaching your decision.

This has two main benefits –

First, your team can see what you’ve thought about, and understand what you’re trying to achieve.

Because of this, they may well feel able to take further action, moving the business in the right direction with less input from you.

Equally, your team may be aware of factors you have overlooked and can bring them to your attention.

The second benefit is that transparent and open decision-making builds confidence among the team members and influences their view of you as a leader who ‘knows what they’re doing’.

Who would you rather follow – a leader who makes seemingly random decisions, or one who makes decisions that are carefully thought through and clearly explained?

Do you bless your customers?

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face …

Those are the first few lines of a traditional Irish blessing and, for me, they are all about making life easier for the person receiving the blessing.

Regular readers will know that I’m a great fan of ensuring the customer’s interests lie at the heart of your business strategy. The easier you make life for the customer, the more you will be valued as a supplier, the longer the customer will stay with you, and the more opportunities you will have to win other business from that customer.

During a recent session with one business, we discovered that their customers were having to re-order consumables manually. However, this business held customer usage data, which meant they knew what their opening stock position was, so creating an automatic replenishment order wasn’t that much of a step for them. But doing this would make a significant difference to the customer – one less thing for them to worry about.

In a similar vein, another business was including a service offering with every sale. The default was that the customer bought the service with the product and had to specifically decline the service if they didn’t want it. As the IP for the product belonged to this business, there was nowhere else the customer could get it serviced or repaired.  But including a service with the sale didn’t just give the business the security of future revenues, it also eliminated a potential headache for the customer. They too had security, knowing that the service had been organised in advance.

The key to keeping your customer on side is to understand their business need. The fact that you supply them with a particular widget isn’t important. What matters more is understanding what they are going to achieve with that widget. And when you know what they are doing with it, you may be able to see how you can help them achieve their goal. Through doing this, you will almost certainly gain other benefits as well.


It’s not a fire

We had a problem with our supplier – they were offering us a really long lead time for an item we needed quite soon if we were to meet our customers’ expectations.

The comment made by the supplier was a little direct –

‘Lack of planning on your part does not constitute a fire on my part’.

We won’t be using that supplier in the future. What they said to us isn’t something I would ever recommend you say to a customer either. But it is worth keeping their comment in mind when you are next chasing a result.

Are you under pressure because you didn’t plan properly?

If that’s not the case, where is the fire?

At what point did your project or program get away from the planned timeline? What caused that to happen?

When you know these answers, the most important questions to ask yourself next are, ‘What could we have done to avoid this?’ and ‘Should we build in an allowance for this to happen again and put remedial measures in place?’.  (The answer to this second question is ‘Probably yes’ – unless it really was a unique set of circumstances.)

Most projects fail for two main reasons –

The first reason for failure is because they are not properly planned;  they aren’t broken down into measurable and achievable steps that have performance indicators attached to them. If you don’t set a target, how will you know when you’ve  achieved it?

The second – and perhaps more worrying – cause of failure is when both the plan and a means of measuring it exist, but the outcome is ignored or skipped over. Sometimes this can happen when the failure of a project means the loss of face or status is too great to accept. The project team can’t bring themselves to admit failure – and that can mean they move the target!

The more complex the project, and the more moving parts it comprises, the more important it becomes to break it down into manageable pieces, so you can measure performance at the lowest level.

Avoid the fake news trap

It’s not just in American politics that we suffer from fake news. It happens all the time in the business world over here as well.

Sometimes, it’s internal. Credit is taken or blame shifted from one individual to another through careful commentary and positioning.

Often, it’s external. For instance, when dealing with customers or suppliers where promises or half-promises are made in the full knowledge that they won’t be kept.

If you are getting ‘fake news’ internally, you have a cultural problem. Your team are not being honest and open, which shows there is a lack of trust. That leads to team members retaining rather than sharing their knowledge and working as individuals, rather than as part of the greater whole.

It can take some time to change the culture.  The trap here for the manager is that they act on the fake news – so reinforcing the behaviour of the guilty party. I claim credit for a job that really belongs to someone else, get rewarded, so I’ll do it again!

You can avoid this by double-checking your facts. Good journalists confirm their stories from multiple sources. If you reward the right people, the fake news will fade away – it becomes pointless because you have seen through it.

Now let’s look at the effects of fake news externally.  If you are making promises to customers that you know you can’t keep, you are just setting yourself up for failure. If I promise to deliver by next Tuesday, delivering on Tuesday or before makes me look good. Delivering on Wednesday makes me look bad – so why would I promise delivery on Tuesday?  I’m afraid of disappointing the customer, but if I don’t tell the truth I am just deferring the disappointment.

Your suppliers may be following the same route. You push for a faster delivery, they say ‘yes, we can do it’ (because that’s easier than saying no), and then they disappoint you with a later than expected delivery.

Fake news may be affecting either or both your customers and suppliers, but you can always check and challenge what’s been promised. You’ll find you won’t have to do that too often before the fake news goes away!

Is process the enemy of creativity?

I have been told more times than I care to remember that process inhibits creativity and we should just ‘let things flow’ so that creative ideas are not short-lived – or even stillborn.

Well-planned processes take into account all the ripple effects. Making a change in a business is like throwing a rock into a series of interlinked ponds. You might be able to see where the ripples end in the first pond, but what about the splash that agitates the next pond and creates ripples there?

The phrase that comes to mind is –

The law of unintended consequences

Well-structured processes and procedures are designed to take to take care of all these side effects so that the organisation remains able to function efficiently.

Organisations with poor or non-existent processes end up re-inventing the wheel. They waste time and effort working out how to do things scratch when they have been done before.

But there may be an element of truth in the assertion that process inhibits creativity. I have come across systems and procedures which are so rigid and inflexible that nothing ever gets changed. It’s just too much like hard work to introduce a new idea!

For me, that’s a good reason to change the process. It’s not a good reason to bypass the process or take shortcuts, which is what my creative colleagues often seem to want to do!

Getting a new idea up and running in an organisation will always mean there are going to be hurdles or barriers to be overcome. For example, it might be that you are required to have a fully costed budget, or perhaps you need to be championed by someone higher up in the organisation.

Creativity is stifled when those hurdles are set too high, too soon. If too many approvals are required early on, it’s much easier to say ‘no’ and kill the project.

Why not take a leaf out of Metro Bank’s book? They have a rule that it takes two managers to say ‘no’ to a customer, but only one to say ‘yes’.

That’s a process, by the way, and I don’t see it inhibiting creativity!

Are you proactive or reactive?

Have you noticed how busy everyone is?

When you walk down the street or sit somewhere for a coffee, look around, and you’ll see most people engaged with their devices. Mobile phones and tablets are wonderful tools that keep us in touch with what’s happening in the world, and with our contacts nearer home.

We’re all busy. When you’re trying to get someone’s attention with an email or another piece of marketing material, the gurus will tell you that you have to try seven or more times before you should expect a result.

If you follow Twitter, or you’ve tried to do so, the sheer volume of comment can be overwhelming, and the same can be said of Facebook. Keeping up to date with the minutiae of your friends’ lives would leave you with no time to do anything else!

Even if you don’t use social media, it’s really easy to spend all day just reading and responding to emails.

The danger with this is that you are only ever reacting to inbound information – or noise – and not being proactive and moving towards your objective.
You do have an objective for today, don’t you?That sounds like such a big thing. The objective. It’s rather a grandiose term and perhaps a little intimidating, isn’t it?

Let me simplify it.

At the start of each day, ask yourself: “What am I going to achieve today?’

How you answer this will set your objective for the day. It’s not complicated, but it is important – important enough to write down and remember it.

When you’re taking a break – perhaps when you go to get a coffee, or perhaps at lunch, take a look at the objective and measure how much progress you’ve made towards it.

Repeat the exercise at the end of the day.

You’ll be amazed at how much more you get done when you stick to the task you’ve set yourself!