Tag Archives: strategy

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 with the investment in paper

Investors in People (IiP) was launched in 1991 by Conservative Minister Michael Howard with a quote that is less memorable and more takes three reads to understand,  “Investors in People is a standard designed by business, which will be met by business, because it is in the interests of business”. Since 2010 it has been governed by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and according to data on the UKCES website 26% of the UK workforce are employed by organisations that have the standard.

My first brush with IiP was in 2002 when I joined a company that was is the throes of going for assessment for the first time. The biggest thing I noticed about the process at that time was the key resource you required was a well maintained photocopier. What I witnessed was not an assessment of the organisation, it’s leadership, management and people but more an assessment of the people processes and the organisation’s ability to execute them – more an investigation of policy and execution than of culture. At the end of the process we achieved the standard – a binary yeah or nay, and the organisation got a plaque and the Training Manager got a bottle of champagne. I remember reflecting at the time that is a lot of work to do for a plaque and the use of a logo that in my view didn’t have much value to anyone – especially our employees.

Somewhere in the mid 2000s IiP had a radical overhaul based on the feedback of those being assessed and the thinking generally in the firmament that the paper based approach and the binary system was not living up to Howard’s ‘lofty’ vision… The more robust and well articulated assessment model, a change in assessor approach and the ability to achieve core IiP or the shinier bronze, silver or gold.

Fast forward 10 years and I join another organisation which has been considering IiP assessment for some time and has worked with assessors and the governing bodies to understand where it is on the journey and lo and behold what appears in my objectives? Obtain IiP accreditation. My heart sank – firstly because I am usually the person most likely to bugger up the photocopier but secondly and most importantly I have a high developed in built streak to resent anything I need to deliver that I (somewhat arrogantly) don’t believe adds value. So I embarked on my quest to deliver the OD strategy I had set out and agreed and if I’m honest kept the need to obtain IiP at arms length – until my arm got chopped and there was no way to avoid it.

In May of this year we went through the assessment process and I was pleased to say achieved beyond the expectations I had spent many months setting. Reflecting on the process I am absolutely convinced it added value – maybe not transparently for every employee in the organisation but to their unseen benefit. The assessor spent 2 weeks with us, meeting people from top to bottom of the organisation in a combination of 1 to 1 meetings, focus groups and informal chats. He toured some our operations, came to staff recognition event and worked hard to truly understand the operation and more importantly the feel of our organisation. He gave me daily feedback and any issues that arose were discussed before being shared more widely.

Did I enjoy the process? Absolutely not – it was unnerving having someone ‘out there’ looking under the bonnet and I will happily I admit I spent the whole 2 weeks on tenterhooks about what would be found and what the outcome would be. Whilst I am pleased we achieved more than we set out to achieve on reflection I really feel I was wrong in keeping it at arms length. It was tremendously valuable in getting an external expert view on what we are doing, how we are doing it and understanding that view provided validation of our business strategy (and OD strategy) and it’s execution which I believe has been to my benefit.

At the end of it what did I get? A bucket load of insight, a well structured report (which has formed a distinct input into my future thinking), a sense of achievement and of course – a plaque! So if like me you experienced IiP in the Paper era I would recommend picking up the phone and talking to them at the very least you will be making a more informed judgement on whether it should be part of how you measure your effectiveness

P.S. No photocopier toner was injured in the process



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The one with the chicken and the egg

So this week I am at the HR Directors Business forum being held in Birmingham. Having attended the CIPD conference in Manchester as a blogger I was able to gain attendance for the same reason.

The opening keynote was given by an American called Edward Lawler who to be honest I haven’t previously come across but have the nagging feeling I should have from other people’s reactions. He is an academic who has, in his own words, “Spent 40 years observing the HR profession”

A lot of what he shared was based on data collected as part of his research. His first major point concerned the fact that episodic change is largely a thing of the past and that anyone who longs for periods of consolidation in the new norm of constant change is likely to have an unrequited longing.

He shared data that demonstrated at in the US at least there is a perception that HR have increased their value to the organisation since the recession started and this is in both their own eyes and in the eyes of managers. As if we needed data to show that….

He then described what he thought of a HR’s three product lines namely:

1. Admin & transaction

2. Business Partner services

3. Strategy

and provided data that showed in most of the developed world with the notable exception of China most HR people believe they have some role in strategy but that in reality participation in strategy hasn’t really changed in the 7 years since he started collecting data on this topic.

He then produced a diagram that I can not replicate here but it basically showed the progression from Human Capital & Business data >> Business Strategy >> HR practice, Organisational Design &  Change Management and here’s where I finally reach my point.

Should current human capital data play a role in defining strategy? Or to put it another way – should the people fit around the strategy or should you design strategy that fits your current organisation? Which should come first?

I must confess if you’d asked me that question 10 years ago I would have without hesitation  answered that people should fit around strategy. Now 10 years older and with a little more scar tissue I must confess I sit somewhere between the two. With so many change initiatives failing (depending on the source between 55% and 90%) are the smart businesses those that get the best result they can from what they have rather than risk a failed change to get to an organisation ‘at the end of the rainbow’?

Part of me still feels a little bit bad typing that last paragraph. It feels like defeat to even consider not changing just because other people fail in their efforts but given the current context (UK GDP down 0.2% in Q4) is the brave thing to do caution and not trying ‘hail Mary’ activities that may appear heroic are actually desperation?


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The one with influencing chess

There is a lot of talk both on and offline about influencing CEOs with regard to the talent agenda. Whether that be the (so called) War for Talent, the need to invest and retain, developing better leaders etc, etc

What’s interesting to me (at least) is the focus is always influencing the CEO and I must confess that given the number of things the average CEO has to think about the idea that the focus is influencing them and not about even getting a meeting with them….

Earlier in my career, my influencing style was described (in a performance review) as that of a petulant 5 year old cheating at draughts. It’s quite a ballsy comment but I had a good relationship with my boss which allowed conversations of this direct nature but good relationships aside even I coloured a little at this comparison.

If you think of the rules of draughts, every piece carries equal value, has a limited ability to move and until a king is formed can only move forwards.

What she went on to describe was my influencing style as go into a conversation/meeting present at a given (or taken) opportunity my idea/solution and wait for everyone else to agree with me. When they didn’t I would metaphorically (or in one case literally) pout, take my toys and retreat to my private sand pit to sulk and think of mean names to call those involved.

Returning to drafts she likened it to the 5 year picking up one piece, moving it straight down the middle of the board and shouting “King me!” When a King was refused, moving the piece back and refusing to play anymore.

What she described to me was that building influence within an organisation was more akin to playing chess. You needed to build your position through thoughtful positioning with people in different parts of the organisation who could influence those at the top of the business who ultimately made decisions.

If you think of the rules of chess, it is by nature far more strategic, different pieces have different abilities and perceived value are more or less useful in building to an eventual checkmate.

She then coached me through a process in attempting to land a major change we were both working on. Both of us knew we would have little support from the certain teams (who were effected most by the change, let’s call them operations), finance would be behind us as it saved money, but the commercial and marketing leads could go either way.

Working up to a crunch meeting I worked with a senior member of the finance team to ensure the case was attractive and airtight. I worked with senior players in both commercial and marketing to build cases for its attractiveness to our customers and was even given the opportunity to speak to a couple of them. I worked with senior members of the (mythical of course) Operations team who, as it turned out, were grudgingly supportive of the outcome if not the process but I better understood their objections and could craft rebuttals and work arounds for most of them.

4 weeks later the crunch meeting came, I delivered the slide deck (including all my supporting evidence), took the questions, offered the rebuttals and sat waiting for the jury to deliver its verdict. 5 minutes of chatter, beard stroking, calculator pounding and conjecture followed but without input from the CEO who had sat watchful at the other end of the table. I must confess I feared the worst until in minute 6 the CEO uttered a phrase that made my day, week, month and bonus “Well….we’re going to do it, right?”

I was a converted Chess player from then on and although it has taken me some time (and on occasion I still fail) to control the rush of blood to the head when the objections fly, I think that conversation in that performance review probably had more of an impact on my career than most others.

So to bring this back to where it started, maybe people need to stop asking how to influence the CEO but rather ask how to influence the people who influence the CEO and how to influence those the CEO turns to when they want to validate something.

In the meantime, bishop to queen’s rook 7


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The one with finite talent

Forewarned is forearmed: this post contains more references to the rugby world cup. Any complaints should be sent by pigeon to “I warned you, c/o its right here at the top”…

I am Welsh. I was born in Wales, I was raised in Wales, my secondary education was in Wales but no I don’t speak Welsh (although I can tell you I don’t like coffee which is fortunately true). I have lived “up England” since 1994 and as one of my former colleagues put it I now sound more “toff than taff” but if there’s one thing that makes me sound very Welsh it’s shouting at the TV during a rugby match.

The Rugby World Cup started in New Zealand last week which brings teams from all over the world to compete in a knock out style tournament to be the World Champions. The current holders are South Africa. Depending on the track record and form of the team will be where perception of their ability to actually win the whole thing, make the last eight, get out of the groups, put up a valiant effort or just have a load of fun with it.

If we park the rugby for a moment (but we will return)…

Neil Usher (@theatreacle) tweeted some statistics this morning from an article he was reading in the Economist. The one that caught my attention was this one:

“Manpower survey – only 27% of businesses feel they have the talent needed to implement their business strategy”

With tongue firmly placed in cheek I responded thus:

“Or is there business strategy just unrealistic and only developed to keep the share price buoyant?”

Banter ensued and we all went about our mornings….but it planted a seed in my mind and having spent around 5 hours in the car today that seed had plenty of time to put down roots.

If you take the Welsh team as an example of any international rugby team they have finite resource. There are rules and regulations (which attempts have been made to circumvent) as to who qualifies to be able to legally play for Wales. Therefore if you are Warren Gatland (the current Welsh coach) there are a fixed number of players you can select for your team.

Mr Gatland cannot:

  • Poach a great player from another team
  • Hope against hope that some player will mystically apply for his team and turn his fortunes around

He has to make the best of what he’s got and whilst there are clubs that the individual players are contracted to, he can only field a team from the players that can legally play for the national team. Therefore his strategy and the expectations he manages around it (and trust me there is a lot of expectation) have to be on the realistic prospects of the talent he has available. He has significant resources for training and that activity is also supported through the clubs.

Mr Gatland may make a determination based on the talent available that his strategy and expectation will be to make the final 8 of the tournament whilst I believe Graham Henry (who coaches New Zealand) will need to emigrate if his strategy is not winning the whole thing!


Rather than saying they don’t have the talent needed to implement their strategy would the 73% of respondent organisations to the survey quoted in the Economist not be better served by taking a different view and saying “these are the people we have, this is the best we can do with them and that can inform the strategy”

I know this is a simple view to a complex situation and the illustration only served me to provoke a shift in perspective that may make organisations think differently before running off to poach the star player.

Incidentally if Wales are expecting “to win the whole thing” I think we’ve got some expectations to manage and quick….England however…HUGE expectation 😉


Note: this post was edited following the comment from @alexhens below


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