Monthly Archives: June 2011

The one with a rant about Gen Y

You can’t open a newspaper, magazine or Twitter client these days without hearing talk of Gen Y and for those of you who err towards the puerile end of humour, read this brief blog post from @garyfranklin

Like anyone else peddling their wares in HR these days I am aware of that apparently we need to change the world to engage with generation Y and that the baby boomers are going to break the pension pot.

I must confess I bandy the phrases as well as the next ware peddler but until I indulged in a little light wiki’ing recently I didn’t know the specifics of all the generational definitions and as I work in L&D indulge me momentarily in sharing some recently acquired knowledge:

  • The Lost Generation was originated by artist and write Gertrude Stein to describe those lost in the First World War
  • The Greatest Generation is a phrase originated by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw for those born between the turn of the 20th century up to 1924.
  • The Silent Generation has been used to describe those born from 1925 to 1945. Clearly whoever coined the phrase had never met my Mother…
  • The Baby Boomers we all know about and they were born between 1945 and 1964 and embarrassingly I learned about the term because there was a specific edition of Trivial Pursuit (the shame) and with some exceptions they are running the world at the moment and at one time or another have all lived in a yellow submarine (kidding!)
  • Generation X are those born between 1964 and roughly 1980 (definitions vary) and interestingly are the first generation to earn less than the one before them even though their defining era likely involves Thatcher & Reagan, yuppies and red braces but also at least 3 recessions.
  • Generation Y are those born between 80/82 up the early mid 90s (again definitions vary) and have grown up with the internet, generation X parents and according to many sources (including the above linked blog) expect a lot more from their employers (reward, recognition, feedback, involvement, development, advancement etc) and if they don’t get it they will leave.

I won’t even discuss the ‘digital natives’ or generation Z but it does worry me that people who think it’s perfectly acceptable to write ‘coz’ will be running the country when I am receiving palliative care.

So is there a point? Well it’s more a rant than a point but again I beg your indulgence…

I only have two 1st cousins and both are significantly younger than me. The eldest is Gen Y and during a conversation with her at the weekend she talked about how finding friends in a new environment was difficult (she is going from undergraduate to postgraduate) and that she felt that people were only interested in her for what she could give them rather than building a meaningful relationship just for the sake of friendship. This spun off to a conversation about some of the traits of gen Y and how she felt alienated by it and the following thought struck me…

Are the lunatics taking over the asylum?

Did Nurse Ratchet think “McMurpy’s not happy let’s change the rules until he is?”*

Do school teachers change the rules of classroom discipline because the kids complain about it?

With major corporations training senior managers on how to engage gen Y employees are we allowing the preferences of a group to influence the way businesses are run, despite at times it being counter to the espoused values of the business?

It strikes me (and this is probably where my rant shows me up), however draconian it may sound that WE (whether that be a boomer or Gen X) need to stand our ground and actually manage consistently across the organisation to “assist” those of a different generation to understand and appreciate what the expectation is of them… What will get them reward and recognition and advancement…  rather than expending energies understanding what rice krispie treats they want and how to win the oft quoted “war for talent” by superficially making our businesses more attractive.

….steps down from soapbox

Now who wants a game of foosball? It’s gr8!

*for any Gen Z people reading this, that refers to a film called “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” starring an actor called Jack Nicholson. Watch it – it’s brilliant 😉

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The one where it’s about value

‘We’ seemed to be obsessed by value…

  •  “Can you give me an example of time a time when you added significant value to the organisation?”
  • “This product is really value added”
  • “Re-engineering this process will reduce lost value to the business”

Those 3 examples I have heard, live, out of the mouths of actual people in the last few weeks, and in addition to my significant score in lingo bingo it always makes me want to ask the individual espousing how they would define value.

In a previous role I was fortunate enough to lead a project that had the broad objective “to find £2million of additional value in the business”, nothing was off the table and the CEO was our sponsor. In preparing for this we got some external support and it was during that process the following equation was introduced (and unfortunately I don’t have a citation for it):

Value= Function/Cost

The first thing that struck me at the time and in subsequent reflection is that in this instance value is subjective, for example, which of the following is of greater value?

Now the answer to the question which is of higher financial value is of course the Aston Martin. But the answer to the value question is far more subjective. If you are a spy evading capture on the lanes of Monte Negro of course the Aston is far more valuable, but for carrying a pallet of products then the Merc is head and shoulders above…

The second thing that struck me and seems stunningly simple (else how could I have worked it out?) is that to increase value there are 3 options:

(a)    Reduce cost

(b)   Increase function

Or secret answer (c) marginally increase cost to significantly increase function

Given the current state of the economy and the impact that is having on both public and private sectors there seems (at least in the rhetoric) to be an overwhelming focus on answer (a) ‘let’s get the red pen out’, a begrugding commitment to answer (b) ‘we’ll sweat the asset harder but very little discussion on answer (c) ‘let’s make some marginal investment to make this signficiantly better.

In thinking this over that the biggest determinant in these proportions is risk. Cutting cost is (at least in the short term) very low risk:

Person A: “Your need to increase your profitability by 10%”

Person B: “I have reduced my payroll by X and I am 10% more profitable”

Person A: *pats person A on head and throws them a rice krispie treat

But what were all those people doing that is now not being done? What is the impact of this reduction on your customer? What is the long term impact on the true performance of your business?

Sweating the asset harder involves some form of management or dare I say it leadership? That is where you either become the slave driver or even extract discretionary effort from people through increasing their motivation and commitment. Now that’s a huge risk…

My belief on the fear of option (c) is that not only does it involve making the kind of quantum unheard of leaps involved in option (b) but it also means asking for money FIRST, it involves actually making a case to do something better but needing some money to achieve it which involves commitment to a long term output but also means forgoing the pat on the head and the rice krispie treat.

What is written here is a exceptionally simplified take on what are often very complex situations (apart from the fact that Aston Martins are cool – that’s simple) so what did I write it? In the vain hope that if it makes 1 person somewhere stop and take a moment the next time they have the choice between options a, b & c and maybe just maybe they would take the risk, think about the long term and not be driven purely by a pat on the head…..and a rice krispie treat

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The one where it’s on the books

Last month HMV sold Waterstones for £53m to a fund controlled by a Russian Billionaire (they are tiring of football clubs it seems) and this is either the best money ever spent or history may show the purchase of a sinking ship. Waterstones is profitable at present and people will not stop buying books but the world is changing….fast.

That evening I tweeted something along the lines of “Amazon is where I buy the books I need, Waterstones is where I find the books I want” and in the responses a few people made the comment that they find the books at Waterstones and then go home and buy them cheaper at Amazon. This lead to a healthy debate, which in summary went something like:

Side 1: Your model (of browsing but shopping cheaper) will become extinct

Side 2: They don’t offer me any greater service so why should I buy it?

Side 1: You are consuming their ‘service’ by going into their shop and availing yourself of their stock

Side 2: But the staff doesn’t help me or offer me anything more than I can get online

Side 1: Do you ask?

Side 2: I shouldn’t have to

Side 1: Do you go into a bar, wait in the middle and complain about not getting served?

Side 1: The margin erosion means there are less staff to serve you and they are just focussing on operating the shop

Side 2: But that’s not my problem

Side 1: What you are doing is the equivalent of walking into loads of bars tasting loads of drinks and not buying anything

…and so it went on (it was Friday evening so at times it was a little spirited and if the person involved is reading this apologies for an editorial licence I may have taken to make the point)

It ended amicably with the other person (Side 2) admitting it had provoked thought and me (Side 1) realising that the other side wasn’t to blame that actually it’s Waterstones (and other businesses in the same situation) who to use a line from ‘The Untouchables’ are taking a “knife to a gun fight”.

The internet has changed the world, no more so than for retailers who are competing with businesses that have very different (leaner) cost structures and can operate their “stores” without the joys of rent, rates, shop fit, staff, localised stock etc etc and it strikes me (and I am by no means (x1000) the first person to say this) competing on price with someone who has a dramatically lower cost base than you is setting course for extinction. The pureplay internet retailers (i.e. those with no stores) have become very smart at providing some of the value of an in-person shopping experience with user reviews being the clearest example of them really understanding their customer.

Consumers are price sensitive, there is no disputing that but I recently asked a room full of people what their favourite retail experience was and not one person’s answer involved price. 95% of the answers involved the people they were served by. To me Waterstones need to stop selling books and start creating a book buying experience – that walking into a Waterstones would be like going to your book club where people have opinions and are able to tell you what they think. Whilst no one is price insensitive it is not the only factor…

When the video revolution first took hold (I am showing my age) a video shop opened locally to my parents home which was independently run and staffed by people who had a vested interest in the shop and liked films. Going there was great because firstly they had “The Cheers Factor” (everyone knew my name) but secondly they shared their opinions when asked, “if you like X I imagine you will like this” or “It’s like X but faster paced”. That shop (for the moment) is a Blockbuster and the biggest focus is selling package deals of coke/sweets/popcorn…

I may be shockingly naive in the way I see this and Waterstones may already be trying to do this but unless they dramatically and consistently change the way their staff engage with customers they are allowing the consumer to make a decision that is purely based on cost and not helping others (like Side 2 on Twitter) see the value in shopping with other criteria in mind or more importantly see the value that a specialist book shop adds over the online alternative.

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The one with the milestones

If you’ve read this blog from the start then firstly, I doff my cap to you and your carriage clock is in the post but secondly, you’ll recall that it started with me talking about what was in front of me: the end of my Masters course. At that point if I recall correctly (and I do because I’ve just been back to read it) I had an essay, 2 exams and a dissertation/project to finish. The good news is the essay is done (it was about diversity and gender and spawned a post all its own which you can find here). In just under a week all that will remain will be my project as my exams are next week and I say this for all to see: I will never revise for anything EVER again….

I am one of those awful people who leave things to the last moment (if you read any psychological profile on me it will contain the phrase ‘is energised by last minute pressure) which makes any form of academic preparation a gut wrenching nightmare. Things will trot along nicely and at some point I will have the “I haven’t done enough” moment, I will feel sick and from somewhere my memory will gain stickiness that belays its normal average function. With just over 4 days to the first exam, this moment has not yet happened and nothing is sticking. Crap.

But I digress; the reason for writing this was not to complain about my random revision foibles. The milestone will be the end of the exams and hopefully I will be far too drunk (or preparing for something in work that I’ve forgotten) to write about this but the other milestone was a meeting with my project supervisor. To be technically correct she is my second project supervisor as my first supervisor took a sabbatical (oh to be an academic) but the meeting went well and I came away feeling encouraged and on the right track….ish

In the course of the meeting she asked if I would take part in an open day for potential students and as part of that conversation she asked a question that loads of people have asked me (in various tenses), “Have you enjoyed it?”. The answer I gave is pretty consistent with the answer I give/have given everyone which is “I hate it at the time but enjoy it with reflection”. She then went on to ask me what was the most challenging part and got the following list:

  1. Having to read 6 journal articles a week whilst working and travelling for work (I must have been drunk if I thought reading whilst travelling was going to be my thing – jetlag and theory DO NOT mix)
  2. Learning to think and process things differently. This may sounds a grandiose statement but getting my head around the academia of it all has really hurt
  3. The discipline of writing essays and structuring thought constructed around published thought.
  4. The terminology (more of that in a moment)
  5. Putting my pride to one side and admitting to REALLY not understanding things but balance this with the comfort of others being in the same boat
  6. Finally, and most importantly, keeping all of this in context of the rest of my life: work, social, relationships, friends, chores etc

Probably the defining moments in terms of both terminology and pride was our first weekend workshop held at a conference centre (latterly known as the Gulag) in Buckinghamshire. Having been issued with 5 articles to pre-read we went to our first lecture and from there our first discussion group.

A brief aside. Have you ever heard anyone use or used yourself the term “paradigm shift”, e.g. ‘we need a paradigm shift in strategy’. Next time you hear someone use it, claim 20 points at lingo-bingo and then ask them this: “what do you mean by paradigm?”

Our first lecture opened by defining some paradigms, both in terms of their ontology and epistemology. STOP. If you’ve never heard those words before, are you thinking “what the hell do they mean?” Are you wondering if you should know them? Are you wondering if everyone else knows them? I was, and it was only 9.12am on a cold grey Saturday morning. I have wiki linked the two words so feel free to have a look if you fancy it but that was defining moment #1 in terms of terminology and pride.

In the ensuing group discussion we have to go through the 5 articles we had (of course) pre-read and categorise them by paradigm. We didn’t do well. However, the 1 article we all nailed and I felt really comfortable with was the one from the Harvard Business Review so it wasn’t all bad. Ahhh but it was because on the arrival of our group tutor it turned out that academically speaking the HBR article was simple, trite, lacking in substance, not peer reviewed etc etc etc and basically if that was the one you made sense of you were doomed….

This was defining moment #2 but lead to my breakthrough and comfort in realising why we were doing this as a group – no one else got them either! BRILLIANT! As it turned out the rest of the room felt equally alienated, panicked and shared a sinking feeling. And you know what? The course tutors knew it too! It was later admitted that they started us with some of the most complex ideas and material both to future proof us for the rest of the course but also that from there it only ever got easier (or at least was the same).

Now I would normally spend a few sentences talking about the support of groups, pride coming before a fall or something that neatly ended this but I’m not going to. Why? Because my gut has just started wrenching and I need to revise!

And no I’m not taking part in the open day. My decision not hers fortunately 🙂

 

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The one with Scooby Doo and other cowards

Last week I wrote a blog about Courage, broadly and in terms of organisations. In response to that blog there were two comments. The first made the point that in courage required fear (this made by a Consultant friend of mine) and the second (from Gareth Jones) refuted that. That evening, I was having a conversation with someone who shall remain nameless, and this person asked an interesting question (which kind of backed up the point that courage needed fear) and the question was “if you aren’t courageous in response to fear does that make you a coward?”. The conversation went on to discuss conscientious objectors and those who refused to “go over the top” in the trenches of the Somme.

The definition of coward varies depending on the dictionary but this seems fairly representative:

noun

  • a person who is contemptibly lacking in the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things.

adjective

  • 1 literary excessively afraid of danger or pain.
  • 2 Heraldry(of an animal) depicted with the tail between the hind legs.

The curiosity seed about cowardice having been planted in my mind I did what I always (now) do in response to an absence of knowledge I googled it and the cowards who seem to be commonly quoted (aside from Noel, a cheap joke!) are these:

Two have something in common, Jack McCall and Robert Ford who shot, respectively, Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James in the back whilst wrapped up in other outlaw type activities. The fact that they killed outlaws wasn’t what was objected to, it was the fact they shot them in the back that distinguished them.

J. Bruce Ismay, who as Chairman of White Star Lines was considered a coward as he made it off the R.M.S. Titanic whilst women and children were still on board.

The remainder of the names that come up seem to involve either people making seemingly poor decisions (Neville Chamberlain) or people who are making what appear political decisions or following poor intelligence (George W. Bush comes up a LOT!). So are a poor decision makers cowards? Did they not feel fear or did they choose to not be courageous?

Although Eddie Izzard would seem a strange source to cite here, he makes an interesting point in his show “Dressed to Kill”. In the process of making a point about religion he says that Scooby Doo and Shaggy are two of the most major characters in American literature (he also makes the point that Scrappy Doo should have been shot). He remarks that aside from Falstaff (who appears in several of Shakespeare’s Henrys) they are the only cowards that we like. He goes on to say that they only believe in “cowardice and sandwiches”. So is the reason the lists for heroes are copious and the lists for cowards are tiny to do with the fact that we don’t like cowards?

Watch from 10’ 45”  to hear it straight from the horses mouth… (and be warned he MAY use some swear words)

But with the information from both google and from Eddie Izzard, I am still no clearer on the difference between cowardice and poor decision making.

In “The Return of the Jedi” Alec Guiness (as Obi-Wan Kenobi) says “you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view” to Luke in justifying his sin of ommision around the whole ‘Darth Vader’s your Dad’ thing. So are poor decision makers only cowards from a certain point of view?

I am no clearer on this. In fact I am moderately more confused. At least having watched a bit of Eddie Izzard I have laughed.

So no neat ending. No packaging. Just a sharing of thoughts since last week with the hope that some opinion will make things clearer.

The floor is yours…..

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The one where it’s about courage

I read a piece in the Washington Post yesterday which talked about outgoing US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates and a speech he made to the US Naval Academy graduation ceremony at Annapolis, Maryland. If you want to read a larger excerpt then it’s here but the part that really caught my attention was this:

“A further quality of leadership is courage: not just the physical courage of the seas, of the skies and of the trenches, but moral courage. The courage to chart a new course, the courage to do what is right and not just what is popular, the courage to stand alone, the courage to act, the courage as a military officer to “speak truth to power.”

In most academic curricula today, and in most business, government and military training programs, there is great emphasis on team-building, on working together, on building consensus, on group dynamics. You have learned a lot about that. But, for everyone who would become a leader, the time will inevitably come when you must stand alone. When alone you must say, “This is wrong” or “I disagree with all of you and, because I have the responsibility, this is what we will do.” Don’t kid yourself — that takes real courage”

When someone says the word courage to me I always think of what you could term “big match” courage, most typified by a military style courage, the stuff that wins Victoria Crosses or Military Medals – the taking of hills, the rescuing of comrades under fire but if you consider courage in other forms you could cite numerous examples: Rosa Parks keeping her seat, Nelson Mandela forgiving the prison guards, Rosalind Franklin defying gender segregation to make scientific history, and the list could go on [Read @ThinkingFox’s blog from this morning for more great examples]

However, the point that Gates so eloquently makes and that which is probably most relevant in an organisational context is being able to ‘speak truth to power’ in other words, how not to be a ‘yes man’. But (and there has to be a but) more pertinently in an organisational context, how to avoid being a yes person WITHOUT being on the receiving end of a P45 or sent to the proverbial “Russian Front”

Harvard Business Review ran a piece in 2007 entitled “Courage as a Skill” and in it Kathleen Reardon talks about how this form of moral courage isn’t actually what is effective in organisations. She goes on to define a concept called the “courage calculation” or more simply put the intelligent and planned taking of calculated risk. Her calculation involves considering goals, determining importance, understanding the power dynamics and influencing them in your favour, judging the risk vs. reward (or as my boss used to term it “is it a hill to die on?”), timing (not just the secret of comedy) and understanding your plan B (check canopy etc)

From personal experience, of taking risks and having read this article and discussed it with various groups I’ve worked with in recent years, it’s not an easy thing, even with all the prep in the world. All the thinking in the world won’t control your pulse, the cold sweat and the dryness of mouth you could well experience in having one of these conversations but the feeling afterwards? Amazing! Tall buildings? Single Bounds? CHECK

I am now further along the process of interviewing people from my Masters dissertation (you remember, the whole reason for setting this blog up) and what’s interesting in considering corporate entrepreneurs is how consistent risk taking seems to be as a trait (so far). What’s also interesting and maybe more defining is how often the risk isn’t this thought through calculated form of risk but actually more needs driven almost a personal imperative. It seems that for some of them the thought of not telling truth to power and getting their idea/plan/opinion/strategy out there is far scarier and more damaging than the outcomes that would cause most of us to back away…

Whichever form of courage you see (and you will see it in everyday life) or have the most respect for, there is a line from Robert Frost that always seems to run through my head when these situations arise either for me or around me in organisational life and it seems as good as place as any to close:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

and that has made all the difference”

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