Tag Archives: courage

The one with the lift and shift

I remember some years ago (it was the past, its distant, so dim I can’t see it) attending a workshop on strategy and how an individual can go about solving business challenges by applying strategic tools. It was like a mini MBA style thing but about £48K cheaper. At the end of the workshop the facilitator presented us with a list of things to try if ever blocked i.e. no solution was presenting itself. One of the things on the list was to imagine you are an alien arriving on Earth what would you think about what you saw (I always worry this has a profound effect on the behaviour of management consultants but that’s another post altogether).

Fast forward a few years and I was in Hong Kong for the first time and in getting in the lift to go up to our office (we were on the 39th floor) I was confounded to find no buttons in the lift. Instead you had to push the floor you wanted on a panel outside and the system then directed you to the appropriate lift car. I thought this was ridiculous until I stopped for a moment and thought about it and realised it was completely amazing.

The alien arriving on Earth would have no clue why there were people in every car going to the same floor but being split across multiple lifts all being stopped and started randomly dependant only on who had decided to use them. I remember thinking at the time it was a brave engineer or designer who pitched that idea at the meeting and thank god someone backed them.

Now we reach a few weeks ago and I am attending a conference (I was doing a turn) and met someone who work for a major airline. I won’t name them but they are British, formerly favourite now more flying and serving. They had run a form of internal skunk works to try to address the challenges of working with teams and individuals in remote locations and constantly shifting teams.

Of the two teams attempting to address the challenge the first team returned with what in 2013 is surely the teacher’s pet answer. It involved internal social networks, communities, blogs, video uploads – you know, all that good stuff we all think is the silver bullet to everything. My understanding is they got a pat on the back and a job well done. The second team however thought very differently.

The solution they came back with may even count as a *whispers* paradigm shift in the thinking. Rather than a new strategy and boat loads of tactical goodness they came back with a simple but systemic change. Stop thinking of head office as the team and everyone else as remote but rather realise that head office is the remote one and everyone else works together.

Having had the pain joy of spending some time with flight crew down route they are not sitting around worrying about the company strategy. They are usually spending high quality time exploring the locale, eating, drinking and generally being a very well bonded group.

Whether this shift in thinking actually leads to an improve in the operation of the airline is yet to be seen but whether it be the lift or the remote workers you’ve gotta love it when someone just flips the reality 180 degrees and looks at it completely differently. Haven’t you???


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The one where you’re wrong


Hitler invading Russia – wrong

Boasting that the Titanic couldn’t be sunk – wrong

Building Columbia from the components provided by the cheapest bidder – wrong

The team at NASA using metric whilst contractors Lockheed Martin use imperial – wrong

AOL buying Time Warner – wrong

Launching New Coke – wrong

Apple firing Steve Jobs – wrong

Reducing the blowout prevention at Deepwater Horizon – wrong

Tesco launching ‘Fresh&Easy’ into the US – wrong


The list goes on and on and of course we are all wise after the event but…my curiousity is with each of these decisions was there at least one person in the room who disagreed? If there was, did they say anything?

None of these failiures were due just to a tactical or operational failiure – they are all (at least they appear) to be based on poor strategic decision making so who was at fault? The person who made the decision or those who failed to challenge them?

Telling truth to power is difficult but for HR people it is ESSENTIAL – whether that be in hiring, performance management, organisational design and effectiveness, renumeration, employment law, etc. We MUST tell truth to power and that involves two things 1) being credible 2) being brave

The first is all down to preparation – know the argument, the counter argument and have the data. The second is down to the split second when you reach the fork in the road. Please for the sake of your organisation and your self esteem  – take the road less travelled and tell power the truth. Otherwise you’re wrong…


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The one with the secret society

We (not the royal we, but the people I work with) have recently been through an office move. Lots of stickers on everything, drawers packed into boxes, shelves reassigned and a general state of upheaval. Whilst the office was being transformed I decided to employ by best attempts at channeling Sherlock Holmes in the search for a secret society I often hear reference to and have never found – they call themselves ‘the business’.

I must confess I wouldn’t want to be part of ‘the business’ because they are to blame for EVERYTHING. Anything and everything that people can’t or don’t want to do seems to be the fault of ‘the business’ so I can only think what a strange and dissociated bunch they must be…

Having worked in my current organisation for a little over 15 months I have never met anyone who claims to know or be part of ‘the business’ but yet some must be because something big enough and influential enough to block every kind of initiative and proposal, to ignore such great ideas and to general overlook everyone MUST have some members. Maybe it is so secret that people can’t even admit to being part of it?

Sorry? Everyone is WHAT? Everyone in the organisation is part of ‘the business’? This can’t be true! ‘The business’ ignores everything and everyone, doesn’t it?

Oh, it isn’t a secret society that no one can join? What do you mean it’s made of teams and groups and they are made up of individuals?! This can’t be right because that would mean that every individuals contribution makes up the actions of the business. That everyone has the opportunity however small to influence the business. That it is not a static thing that no one can alter but a dynamic thing made up of the collective efforts of all who are part of it. Well this really is quite strange…

OK, odd one-sided conversations aside, I often hear ‘the business’ being blamed for a lot of things and whilst I understand at times it’s difficult to influence a big complex organisation maybe, just maybe it’s not about one attempt and then futile resignation (possibly in both senses of the word). Surely if governments can be influenced by public opinion then organisations can be influenced by stakeholders – and if you don’t think you’re a stakeholder in your organisation then think again!

The next time you are about to blame ‘the business’ for something stop yourself, take a moment and ask yourself the following question,

“What could I do about it?”

  • It may be you need to talk to some other people and get them onboard with your idea
  • It may be you need to contribute to a meeting or forum where bigger more influential people will be listening
  • It may be you need to try something different and build consensus and influence on a positive result
  • It may be that you need to be brave and pluck up the courage to challenge someone in authority

Someone once said to me that if I didn’t vote in an election I gave up all right to complain about the activities of whomever won. Before you blame the business ask yourself if you voted…


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The one where it’s OZ not OD

Last post from the ‘Democratising Learning’ conference I promise.

During the group discussion on the barriers to creating meaningful learning organisations the conversation moved to what was stopping the individual ‘going for it’. The answer that came up from nearly everyone was fear/lack of courage. On sitting and reflecting on both the conversation and the conference as a whole I came to the conclusion that there was no better analogy (and the spark for a wry smile) for the requirements of an OD professional than Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz…

The Lion

The Lion of course needed courage. You could argue that the OD professional doesn’t need courage but I would argue that not every challenge made either to the organisation or individual leaders can be ‘laid off’ with someone for support or necessarily would work if it was supported. The individual needs at times to just have the courage to act – to make the challenge and attempt to change the status quo.

The Scarecrow

The Scarecrow of course needed a brain. Whether it’s to understand the specifics of the variety of business disciplines we need to interact with, the agility to pick up a given situation or strategy quickly enough to be effective or to be able to understand how any intervention will affect the entire system I would say that intelligence (in it’s many forms) are a prerequisite for OD.

The Tin Man

The Tin Man needed a heart. When I say an OD professional needs heart I’m not necessarily advocating either a) that they wear it on their sleeves or b) that it is the guiding force in every action BUT understanding that the consequences of many of things we do have real impacts on real people should be factored in to the way we operate. The other requirement for heart is more to emotional intelligence – understanding the ‘why’ people do things and using that to grow understanding of motivation and agendas I believe will make the way we operate far more effective.

If this all seems very lightweight I did say it would spark a wry smile and there was a much more grown up discussion on a similar topic at the CIPD conference last year, my take on which you can find here. Saying that, whether you work in OD, have OD accountabilities or work with OD professionals stop for a moment and ask yourself, if they all had courage, brains and heart and used them in the right balance, would they/you be more effective?

P.S. I have thought of all red shoe, yellow brick road and friends of Dorothy gags and have ceased to find any of them funny 😉


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The one with nothing to do

I was recently involved in a conversation about how you prepare people for business continuity/crisis management. One of the comments made in the conversation was that at times (in both simulation and real life situations) people try to do too much or feel the need to do something/get involved. The drivers to this could be many fold but my thoughts at the time was that when it’s ‘all hands on deck’ all deck hands feel the need to be seen to do something (or else feel useless) but probably more importantly when in the grip of the tension and anxiety of such a situation people feel better if they are doing something rather than nothing. One of my colleagues (I think it may have even been my boss) came out with a great quote they had heard which was “he also serves who stands and waits” and I have since found out it’s from John Milton.

In the context of the conversation it was very pertinent and will definitely form some part of the support we give people in preparing for these situations but I have thought about it several times since in the context of management and leadership more generally.

I remember as a younger junior manager that my default setting was doing. In order to be seen to be running the team I had to get involved in every conversation, try and solve every problem and generally make a complete and utter nuisance of myself. With the advance of my grey hair I have become increasingly comfortable not just in holding people to account but more importantly allowing people the space and autonomy to complete their work – supporting them but not becoming an interfering pain in the arse on too regular a basis.

It was another recent conversation that brought the quote front of mind and it was with another senior colleague who was discussing a situation developing in his team. I can’t remember his exact words but he said something like, “there’s always a point like this where it can one of two ways – I’m letting them get stuck into it to see which way they go but I know I’ve got plenty of time to help them course correct if they need to”. I remember thinking how powerful his statement was and how it showed both his experience and his personal confidence at being able to let people make mistakes and knowing when it was necessary (and not just comfortable) to intervene.

There was definitely a lesson for me in his observations and it has already caused me to step back on two different occasions and think about the way I handle something. It also made me think with the triumph of competence over experience in how we assess talent that there was a challenge for those of us in HR roles to understand how this confidence and comfort should manifest in those we support in leadership roles.

Since today I am running an Away Day for one of our senior teams I will contradict myself and get on with a day where it’s unlikely I will have an opportunity to do nothing, but with that said I am sure there will be at least one moment today where I need to let the conversation move on and not stick my facilitation snout into it so maybe a Milton-Moment or two for me after all!

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The one with the no men

So the journey through ‘The West Wing’ continues. For herself it’s the first timem for me it’s the several-th time but every time I watch it I still find little on television past or present to rival it. In an episode we watched recently the President, suffering from a bout of insomnia, consults a therapist. At the end of a two-hour conversation the therapist announces ‘time’s up – we’re done’ and the President, being the most powerful man in the world and all that says,

“I hate to put it this way, but I’m me, and you’re you, and we’re done when I say we’re done.”

Interestingly, rather than yielding to the clear power in the room the therapist pushes back and says aside from his family he’s going to the one person in the world who doesn’t care that he’s talking to the President. Brave man!

It’s interesting watching people in powerful positions and how they treat the people around them and how they expect those people to behave towards them. Hang on a second – the second half of that sentence depends on perception – it could read how they are perceived to expect the people around them to behave towards them…

Have you ever talked to a leader who complained of being surrounded by ‘yes men’? The question I always want to ask (and once did ask) is “do they tell you what you want to hear because of them or because of you?”. Creating an environment where it’s safe to tell truth to power requires both a leader who encourages that behaviour but also people surrounding that leader who are willing to take that courageous step and be a ‘no man’. Of course it’s incumbent on the leader to behave consistently and not shift the goal posts and absolutely essential to the person making the challenge to do it in a manner that is appropriate and allows the leader the space and position to admit being wrong.

I have written about courage (and cowardice) before and having reread those posts this evening I still feel that the work written on ‘Courage as a skill’ is valid to someone considering making this kind of challenge but the thought I keep on coming back to is that whilst there are smart ways to go about being courageous at the end of the day it is a matter of stepping up and doing it rather than letting an opportunity to get the right outcome for the organisation sail past.

If you are that leader (because SOOO many CEOs read this blog) take a moment and ask yourself if anyone ever tells you you’re wrong. If no one ever does look at yourself first before you look at ‘them’ and if you truly believe your behaviour should be engendering more challenge from your team then maybe you need to hire more people willing to tell you that you’re being an idiot….

Having looked in the mirror recently I realise I’m fine….not so much because of my behaviour but just for the long list of people more than happy to inform me of my idiocy 😉

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The one where I admit my hypocrisy

Do you consider yourself hypocritical?

In sharing an observation I will confess to you, here and now, I am a hypocrite.

Have you ever read a job advert or a job spec and thought to yourself “I could do that, I haven’t done it before but it’s very like XYZ project” or “that looks really interesting I would love to get my teeth into that” and when you’ve applied for it you were told something along the lines of either

(a)    They were looking for someone who’d done it before

(b)   Yes you’ve done it in X sector but they really want someone with Y sector experience

Now my admission of hypocrisy is having been on the receiving end of versions of both responses above and bemoaned the narrow minded/short sighted/safe playing individual who makes up ‘they’ in those statements, I have said the statements too….I have been ‘they’

*hangs head in shame

In reflecting on this admission, I’ve been thinking about what drove my behaviour. The reasons are numerous but the biggest reason is personal security and it’s akin to the classic statement “no one ever got fired for buying IBM”. In covering my own back I hired the person who was most acceptable to those around me and was in the context of my role, the safest choice. The people I have hired have been fantastic, delivered some awesome work and I am fortunate that none of them ever put me in the position of having to justify why I hired them but I do think about the people I dismissed from the process because they weren’t ‘IBM’

The biggest irony of all of this is I work for someone who takes exceptional risks it appointing people into roles they have not done before or outside of the sector the business operates in. You may ask how I know this and I would answer simply “me”. When I was hired into the company I currently work for I had never worked in the sector before and when 9 months in I was given considerable additional responsibilities it was for something I had never truly done before.

I am safe in praising my boss here firstly, because I have already acknowledged to them the risk they took in appointing me and secondly, because it is unlikely they will ever read this. I will however admit in taking on the initial and latter role it didn’t occur to me for a moment that my boss was spending organisational capital, taking a risk or leaving themselves open to challenge.

In considering my good fortune compared to those I have, in the interest of my own safety, possibly overlooked I do feel a hypocrite.

But am I alone or does anyone else want to try the horsehair shirt?


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