Monthly Archives: May 2013

The one with coffee and paranoia

Last Friday I spent my afternoon at an internal event focussed on Innovation. A combination of speakers and workshops seemed to energise a diverse room on a Friday afternoon and given the event was internal we were lucky to be joined by Professor Mark Dodgson a leading academic on the subject who is a visiting professor at Imperial College London but more of him in a moment…

The opening session was delivered by one of my colleagues, Mark Thurston who had used a TED talk delivered by another academic Steven Johnson who is preoccupied with Innovation. If you have 19 minutes to spare it’s worth a watch but in essence he debunks the notion that great ideas arrive in eureka moments but more than they grow by individual nurturing and through discussion and interaction with others who challenge and build on the idea. He uses the phrase ‘liquid networks’ and cites a step change in Innovation occurring in 17th Century England which may correlate with the opening of coffee shops and a switch from depressants (due to poor water quality most people drank alcohol all day) to stimulants such as tea and coffee. Coupled with the design of coffee shops to encourage discussion and interaction.

The Grand Cafe, Oxford, opened in the 1650s

He then goes on to talk about events of 1957 when the Russians successfully launched Sputnik 1 into space. In their paranoia to prove that the launch and orbit wasn’t a hoax the Russian authorities made it widely known that the signals sent to and received from Sputnik 1 were being broadcast on a readily available frequency. A group of keen young scientists decided to try to listen to the signal and using some nee-naw (Dopler effect) calculations worked out the position of Sputnik as it travelled around the Earth.

This triumph of the geeks spread around their University and another researcher asked if they could reverse the effect – instead of tracking a moving object in space from a fixed point on Earth, could they track a moving object on Earth from a fixed point in space. The work that followed was in favour of the US government who were attempting to track Submarines and this was the genesis of the global positioning system that so many of us rely on regularly to do many things…including finding coffee shops!

Later, when Professor Dodgson took the stage he shared some incredible insight in how the tragedy of 911 has pushed design engineers Arup to rethink how people can be evacuated from tall buildings in emergencies and how these innovations are part of the Freedom Tower. Weirdly, the answer came back to challenging one of the rules we all take for granted – using lifts in case of emergencies but lifts with modification and capability to allow them to function effectively in an emergent situation. He went on to describe the challenge Arup faced in convincing not only their client but potential tenants and insurers of the building that this was the right answer – basically they got them all to re-solve the problem with them!

The Freedom Tower, Lower Manhattan

He cited the oft told story of IBM and it’s transformation from a product business to a service business but also shared a fact that brought innovation into context in FMCG – 66% of Nestle’s turnover comes from products that didn’t exist 10 years ago – what I believe is referred to as a burning platform! When asked what his work had taught him about companies that were great at innovation he talked about making it part of the culture, that it needs to be part of the strategy, having clear and accessible process but the biggest need he cited was leadership – without senior leaders who are evangelists about innovation it will not succeed.

He ended his session with what he believes is the biggest opportunity for innovation that is still in it’s infancy – the mobile phone. He didn’t wax on about Apple vs Android or Samsung’s new handset but shared 3 simple numbers: there are 7 billion people on the planet, there are 6 billion mobile phones and there are 2 billion bank accounts. The opportunity to make money ‘mobile’ could literally bring the developing world galloping into growth. He shared insights on the impacts of microfinance in developing countries and the impact it is having on those who haven’t been able to save, borrow or trade outside of a limited environment.

All in all it was a fascinating afternoon and it left me excited and optimistic that whatever the news says we as a planet and a race will support and challenge each other to innovate our way out of it. The other thought I had was the irony of  how the paranoia of a group of Russians during the cold war could, inadvertently, through the chain reaction of GPS and it’s impact on mobile change the face of the world by allowing 5 billion people access to structured finance…

Not a bad thought for a Friday…

P.S. If you are reading this having seen it linked in Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin – welcome to the Liquid Network!!

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The one with reputational competence

We all know what it takes to lead an organisation, right? Of course its easy to spot and very clear-cut as to what will lead to success in a Chief Exec role within a given organisation at a given time. Where’s the sarcasm button on this thing???!

If you think back to your first job/jobs especially those of you who indulged in graduate degradement assessment centres, what do you remember? A battery of tests, exercises, group work, presentations, ad nauseam, etc. The organisation hiring you got as complete a picture of your ability, personality and potential against a job role that was very clearly understood (well at least the HR team thought so) and then made a decision against those criteria.

Now let’s go back to the Chief Executive bit. So the role is in broad brush very clearly understood – big cheese, buck stopper, le grand fromage. But the reality is that leading a modern organisation is FAR more nuanced than that – what stage of the life cycle is the business in? What kind of market is it and what is that market doing? What are the focusses for the business? What kind of functional expertise are required and are they present? What role does the Chairman have and what relationship do they want with you? The complexity of success and failure is 100 (to the power N where N is a whole number between OMG and WTF) times more than the graduate gig.

So what do we do? We pay a very large fee to a third-party who does a) most of the work but b) has most of the contact and communication, to hire someone largely on their reputation. Yes, that’s right…what they have done in the past. Now I know the heart of the competency based interview argument is about being able to demonstrate competence from work already completed but given this person is going to need to create the strategy and inspire the delivery of said strategy maybe, just maybe it’s worth doing a little bit more?

What’s sparked this rantette, you may ask?

Well…it’s been brewing for a few weeks since myriad news outlets were getting stirred up, at the governments bidding around the fate of the HBOS 3 – James Crosby (formerly Knight of this parish), Andy Hornby and Lord Stevenson. There was talk that Vince Cable was all set to have them banished forever from Christendom (or struck off as being directors) for their role in the demise of HBOS and the impacts that’s had on the financial sector and the economy as a whole. It has since gone quiet but at the time and at intervals since the thought has struck me – why does the government need to intervene? Why not just trust organisations to hire competence Chief Cheeses?

That said Crosby has gone on to be a Non-Exec of several respected firms, although the list is shrinking by the day, Hornby hightailed out of HBOS HQ and headed to Boots before landing at Coral (who’d have bet on that…geddit?) where apparently they are loving him and Stevenson has several high-profile NED-ships including (who’d have thunk it) ‘The Economist’…

Most people seemingly don’t want an over regulated state meddling in everything…but… in order to achieve that people need to discharge their responsibilities to the best of their abilities. So firstly, if you are in a very senior role in a financial institution think twice about hiring these 3, you’ll save us a whole load of proceedings. Secondly, if you are in the position to hire (or facilitate the hire) of a CEO, stop and think about the role, your company, it’s life stage, your market, it’s need, your people, your accountability and the fact that you are linking your short-term future to whatever you hire – so hire well!

P.S. The person who thinks this is all hysterical? Fred Goodwin – although his laughter does make him lose count of the millions of pounds in his pension pot


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The one with the best of times and the worst of times

It’s easy to start a post by quoting Charles Dickens but if you ever wanted to experience the best of times and the worst of times all in one handy situation then find two organisations that are going through integration.

I was fortunate enough to experience it first hand a few years ago and was hired almost immediately post acquisition (this was not a merger) and what you quickly come to realise is that it’s a difficult situation from every perspective. The need to satisfy the conditions of the change (whether that be financial or performance) are complicated by the myriad of definitions that exist for various parties.

Not to mention the plans that are concrete on Monday and ancient history on Thursday meaning that even those closest to being the ‘enacters’ of the change being confused and fraught trying to manage what at times feels like a bucking bronco that’s just been kicked in the knackers.

Whilst not on the scale of pre-revolutionary Paris that Dickens describes there are definitely camps involved in integration and whether that be the enacters and the recievers, those staying and those going, those from one organisation or the other – the opportunities to take two high performing organisations and bring them to their knees exist everywhere.

The role of HR (in it’s various forms) during an integration is equally challenging. In the core operations you’ve got big decisions and big change to make around policy, payroll, terms, teams and budgets and once those decisions are made you’ve got to actually deliver the changes whilst not breaking the fragile organisation. From a broader cultural perspective you’ve got an entity that is rife with uncertainty, rumour and agendas and if there were ever a breeding ground for political behaviour and self preservation this is it in spades.

Trying to support and preserve performance whilst you are systematically reviewing the organisation is a test of even the most loyal, committed, high performing individual and the need to shape decisions and enact them whilst preserving both the organisation’s and your own integrity is a test for every practioner.

The hardest part of all? You can’t talk about any of it! Publically no details can be revealed and privately there are very few people either a) who know everything and b) will not take you to a place which is about them so maintaining your individual resilience becomes a greater challenge.

So apart from me reliving the angst of integration does this post have a purpose? Yes in fact it does!

Last week HR Magazine announced their shortlist for HR Director of the Year and it’s a cross industry group of the great and good and a few of the usual suspects have yet again been shortlisted. One of the Unusual Suspects to receive a nod is HR Blogger and general Agent Provocateur Neil Morrison, Group HRD at Random House the publisher currently integrating with Penguin to form a power house global publisher.

Neil like all good integrating HRD’s is tight lipped about the plans for the new organisation and it’s partly for that reason that I believe he is deserving of recognition for what must be a hurculean effort. Another reason is that he doesn’t lead a behemoth of an HR team packed to the rafters with big hitters but rather a small team (12) of people at varying stages of developing their careers in HR who clearly run a tight (if informal) ship.

A further reason is that Neil is one of us – he’s a blogger and a tweeter and from the submission on the site you can see his impact on social media within the organisation but more widely within the HR profession I think Neil has had significant impact on the profession’s engagement with all things social.

To spell out the final reason I will quote Richard Curtis articulated with aplomb by Simon Callow in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ when at yet another wedding he encourages his friends to “go forth and conjugate” as for once he would like to go to the wedding of someone he truly loves for a change. Please relax this is not some long hidden bromance finally coming to light, but once, just once I would like someone I know (and although I’d never tell him – respect) to win one of these awards if nothing more than an excuse for a big night out.

So in short VOTE NEil MOrrison (NeMo) and if you’re on Twitter #voteNeMo

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