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What do you (really) stand for?

This week saw some interesting anniversaries.

200 years since Napoleon died.

200 years since the Guardian made its first appearance (as the Manchester Evening Guardian).

And 100 years since Coco Chanel launched the legendary Chanel No. 5 perfume.

What I find interesting about all three is how their reputations have changed over time.

Napoleon was a small man, but a towering historical presence. He was born Italian, but became an iconic symbol of French greatness. Modern-day Paris is still dominated by landmarks and railway stations bearing the names of his military triumphs.

Yet modern-day French politicians are often careful not to associate themselves too closely with Napoleon, because he was also an avowed racist, who reintroduced slavery to French possessions in the Caribbean and cynically betrayed the Haitian independence leaders who had helped him fight the British.

Not a great look for the leader of a Republic based on liberty, equality and fraternity.

Coco Chanel is another iconic French figure: an intuitive designer, spectacular self-publicist and subtly pioneering feminist, who dragged herself up from poverty to define the style of a generation.

She was also an unapologetic anti-semite and Nazi cheerleader, who spent her war years shacked up in the Ritz hotel with a German diplomat – and was only spared imprisonment because of the personal intervention of her friend Winston Churchill. 

My point is that reputation is never set in stone: glorious achievement in one field won’t prevent your reputation being tarnished by failings in another.

However, the good news is that it also works the other way.

The Guardian was first published by Lancashire mill-owners. In its early years, it was derided by the labour movement as a mouthpiece for capitalist exploitation. During the American Civil War, it loudly supported the Confederate states in their struggle to keep slavery.

Yet, over time – and under the careful stewardship of a new owner – the Guardian gradually established an editorial position more consistent with its lofty pronounced ideals.

During the Spanish civil war, it was the only mainstream British newspaper to oppose Franco. Just as it was the first British newspaper to ring alarm bells about the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, long before that become a fashionable position.

Now, I don’t say this because I’m a particular fan of the Guardian. The truth is, I rarely read it these days and, when I do, I often disagree with its editorial positions. 

But I’m glad it’s there. I think it plays an important role in keeping our leaders honest and promoting a fairer society – and I’m not alone in thinking this.

Opinion polls regularly show the Guardian to be the most trusted source of news, both online and among mainstream print media. 

It’s taken them 200 years to build that trust. Which is an example worth remembering next time you’re thinking about your organisation’s values.

You build trust by doing what you say you’re going to do and by living up to the things you say are important.

In other words, values aren’t optional. They’re not something you can disregard when it’s inconvenient or difficult (when you need to close a factory, say). 

If you do, you will lose trust – and all your other brilliant achievements won’t protect you.

So choose your values carefully.

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The next big thing

It’s just over 300 years since the infamous South Sea investment bubble burst.

It was made up of hundreds of different – and often quite bonkers – investment schemes. Here are three of them (direct quotes from the prospectus): 

‘A process for extracting silver from lead.’

‘A company for making a wheel of perpetual motion.’

And (my personal favourite) ‘A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.’ 

What’s extraordinary is that all three of these schemes found plenty of backers.

Even the brilliant Sir Isaac Newton invested (and lost) a fortune.

Of course, it was a long time ago and our forebears simply didn’t have the knowledge and information that we have today. So it’s easy to look back with an indulgent smirk and feel confident we would never be so naïve.

And yet… 

It’s only 21 years since the dotcom bubble burst, leaving lots of people holding shares in businesses with plans almost as risible as their South Sea counterparts.

It’s only 13 years since the world’s economy imploded, when bankers realised they’d been selling each other toxic subprime mortgage debt repackaged as AAA-rated investments.

And we’re still living through a time where our greatest economic brains simply can’t decide whether Bitcoin is a bubble or not.

That’s because it’s part of human nature to be easily distracted by things that seem new and clever. We’re scared of missing out. We don’t want to be last to the party. And we love a shortcut.

Hence, the explosion of organisational communication tools over the past five years. 

It’s so tempting to believe that, if we can just get the board to sign off on the shiny new comms app, it’ll suddenly be a breeze to get everyone engaged.

The problem is that, after the initial novelty wears off, there’s nothing inherently engaging about the app itself. In the same way there’s nothing inherently engaging about Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest.

What makes them engaging is that people are able to use them to connect with people and ideas they find interesting and cool and fun.

In other words, it’s not about the shiny new tech. It’s about what’s on it – and whether it feels relevant and interesting and useful to the people you want to use it.

It’s about the message, not the medium. Substance, not hype.

It’s about giving people the freedom to engage with each other on subjects that interest them. Not pushing out top-down, functional ‘approved messages’ that your leadership team wants them to know.

To put it another way: there’s no point investing in the shiny new tech, unless you’re also ready to embrace a much looser and more organic way of communicating.

Which is hard work. And tricky to manage. And scary for the people at the top of your business (who often don’t like the idea that they’re not in control of the narrative). 

But it’s also absolutely essential.

Because, as those South Sea investors learned the hard way, there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.

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Starlings vs. Lemmings

One of the most bizarre – and beguiling – things you’ll ever see in nature is a murmuration of starlings.

This is when hundreds (sometimes thousands) of starlings swarm together and, in almost perfect synchronisation, swoop and twist and expand, as if they were a single creature with a single mind.

That description doesn’t really do the phenomenon justice, of course. So, if you’ve never seen a starling murmuration, have a look at this:

Extraordinary, right?

What’s even more interesting is how and why they do it.

Ornithologists and animal behaviourists have studied starling murmurations for centuries. And the conclusion they’ve come to is that the birds are not taking their lead from a pace-setter at the front (as migrating geese do). 

They’re not following a choreographed plan.

Instead, they achieve their amazing synchronisation by focusing on the six or seven birds closest to them and reacting instantly whenever any one of them switches their flight pattern.

Why? Because they know they’re safer and more successful when they stick together. But they also know they’ve got a better chance of evading predators, or finding the best feeding spots, if they trust and respond to the instincts of the companions around them.

In other words, they become far more effective than the sum of their parts. 

Which is why a starling murmuration is such a good analogy for how an empowered organisation should work. Everybody moving in the same direction – but able to react quickly to threats and opportunities, because they trust the colleagues around them to make good decisions.

Unfortunately, it’s not the model that most organisations actually follow. Which is to have a shared plan and make sure everybody sticks to it.

That’s a good way of getting everyone moving in the same direction. But it won’t help you react flexibly to emerging threats and opportunities.

Instead, like gazelles on the Serengeti, your people will end up focusing all their energy on getting close to the inside of the herd, so they’ll be less likely to get picked off by predators.

Or like lemmings in the Arctic, they’ll focus rigidly on the plan. 

Even when it means they fall off a cliff.

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Changing the game

Short selling, as you probably know, is when an investor (let’s call them A) is so confident the value of a stock will continue falling that they bet on it. 

They make a deal to sell shares to B at an attractively low price, without actually owning the shares yet. Then they wait for the value to fall, so they can buy the shares at an even lower price, deliver them to B at the price agreed and bank the profits.

This is an arrangement that seems quite strange to people outside the financial markets (how can you sell something you don’t own?) But it’s legal and it has, historically, proved hugely profitable for Hedge Funds. 

The problem is what happens when that bet goes wrong: when the market doesn’t do what you expect and the share price goes up. A is still contractually obliged to give B the shares they’ve paid for, which means A has to acquire those shares at whatever price the market demands. So A makes a loss, not a profit.

That’s what happened last week to a number of Wall Street Hedge Funds, who had taken a short position on GameStop, a loss-making retailer.

Amateur market-watchers noticed so many funds were ‘shorting’ the stock that there weren’t enough actual shares to cover all the exposure. They smelt an opportunity, bought some shares and went on Reddit to urge fellow private investors to do the same.

The result was that, instead of falling, GameStop’s share price surged from $2.57 to nearly $500. It made no sense, but that didn’t matter. By the time the funds had worked out what was happening and bought enough shares to cover their obligations, they’d collectively lost around 19 billion dollars. They’d been beaten at their own game, by amateurs.

What’s interesting is that many of the amateur investors who piled in don’t seem to have been motivated by money. They know the shares they’ve bought are likely to drop in value just as quickly as they’ve risen. And they don’t care.

Because what they really wanted to do was give the Hedge Funds a bloody nose.

I suspect many observers feel some sympathy with that. After all, short-selling is a pretty unsavoury practice: Hedge Funds can buy and sell stock in such significant volumes that the simple act of offering the shares at a lower price often triggers precisely the fall in value they’re betting on. Which hardly seems fair. 

Especially when you consider that, for the Hedge Funds to win, someone else has to lose – which, in this case, includes the real people who work in GameStop’s stores and may lose their real jobs when the company’s value plummets.

That’s why I always think the most important question any business needs to ask (and keep asking) itself is this: what value do we create? What would the world lose if we weren’t here?

If the only answer is ‘money’, you’d better start looking over your shoulder.

Because the real people have figured out how to play your game. And they’re coming for you.

Covid, cancer and creativity

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, Richard Nixon’s attempt to immortalise himself as the President who beat cancer.

The plan was to copy the spirit of JFK’s ‘man on the moon’ vision and throw so many resources at the problem that, within five years, nobody in the USA would die from it any more.

Unfortunately, ‘beating cancer’ turned out to be a lot more complicated and nuanced than putting a man on the moon. Which is why, 50 years later, Nixon’s legacy is rather less glorious than he’d imagined and cancer is still the second biggest cause of death worldwide. 

That’s not to say things haven’t got better. Survival rates have improved significantly for every major type of cancer. 

Except one.

While overall cancer deaths have fallen, deaths from pancreatic cancer have actually risen. It’s now the second-biggest cause of all cancer mortality, killing half a million people worldwide every year, with a survival rate of just 5% in the UK (compared to 76% for breast cancer, or 53% for bowel cancer). 

How come? Why has this particular form of cancer resisted efforts to tame it?

There are a number of reasons. It’s hard to detect. It spreads more easily. It hasn’t had the profile of other cancers – and, therefore, not as much focus or research funding.

But the biggest problem, historically, has been not so much the scale of the resources available as the way they’ve been deployed.

All the big pharmaceutical companies have invested money and expertise in researching ways to treat pancreatic cancer. But most of that research hasn’t worked, which means they’ve hushed it up (‘don’t spook the shareholders’).

Which, in turn, means that, instead of pooling resources and learning from each other’s failures, they’ve wasted time and money duplicating them. 

In the meantime, 95% of people with pancreatic cancer are still dying from it – probably even more this year, since the lockdown has made it harder to detect the disease at an early stage.

And yet, oddly, the long term impact of the pandemic may actually be far more positive for cancer sufferers. Why? Because it’s changed the way people think.

Backed by massive government funding, pharmaceutical companies have combined with research institutes and health agencies to create not one, but five, viable vaccines to combat the covid-19 pandemic. 

Less than a year after the work started, the vaccine is already in the market and protecting people – one tenth of the time it would typically take. 

Working together on the covid vaccine has built relationships and trust between competing clinical bodies. More importantly, it’s built an instinct of collaboration, where people talk openly about research that didn’t work, because it helps everybody’s thinking move on faster.

The results are already seeping into cancer research, with a more collaborative approach yielding encouraging progress in treating pancreatic symptoms.

There are important lessons in this for any business.

The most important being that, if you really want people to be innovative, you have to create a culture where they’re not too scared to tell you something didn’t work.

Where they’re motivated to help each other, not keep things to themselves.

And where they can focus on the problem, without being distracted by money.

Blue eyes, brown eyes, closed eyes

In April 1968, Jane Elliott was an elementary school teacher in Randall, Iowa.

The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, one of the eight-year-olds in her (entirely white) class asked her ‘why’d they shoot that King?’

So she asked the class if they’d like to try an experiment.

On day one, she divided the children into two groups: those with brown eyes and those with blue eyes. The blue-eyed children had to wear blue fabric collars, so they would be easier to identify.

Then she told the class the brown-eyed children were superior – and, because of that, were entitled to extra privileges, such as second helpings at lunch, longer breaktimes, access to the new jungle gym.

The brown-eyed children sat at the front of the class, while the blue-eyed ones sat at the back.

Blue-eyed children weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountain as brown-eyed children – they had to use one further away.

And brown-eyed children were given more leeway in their behaviour, while the slightest transgression by a blue-eyed child was seized on and condemned.

The results were striking. Very quickly, the brown-eyed children became bossy and assertive. Their test scores improved, but they became ‘nastier’ to their blue-eyed classmates, mocking them for their inferiority.

The blue-eyed group, by contrast, became more withdrawn. They lost confidence, isolated themselves at breaktimes and performed worse in tests.

The following Monday, Mrs Elliott reversed the experiment – explaining that she had made a mistake and it was actually the blue-eyed group that was superior. The results were the same, with the brown-eyed group faring worse this time and the blue-eyes doing better. The one difference was that, having experienced discrimination themselves, the blue-eyed children were notably less nasty to their ‘inferior’ classmates.

Opinion was divided about Mrs Elliott’s experiment. Most of the parents were furious. The other teachers refused to speak to her. Her family were abused in the streets. And some psychologists said the effects might be traumatising for young children (which, when you think about it, says quite a lot about why the experiment was needed in the first place).

But it quickly gained national – and then international – interest, when letters by the children explaining what they had learned were published in a local newspaper.

The ‘blue eyes / brown eyes’ experiment has since been picked up and repeated all over the world – and is still often used in diversity training.

The point – the thing Jane Elliott instinctively realised – is that it’s hard for someone to understand a concept like discrimination without experiencing it themselves.

That’s why ‘white privilege’ is such a tricky issue. Most of us who enjoy it (me included) simply don’t recognise it as anything other than normal.

At a more mundane level, it’s also why so much organisational change doesn’t work (over 70% of change programmes fail to achieve their goals, according to research by McKinsey & Company).

It’s difficult to persuade people they need to change when everything feels fine as it is. Especially when change can be chaotic and unsettling – and often means more work, at least in the short term.

If you want people to engage with change, you have to help them understand it. You have to bring it to life, so they vividly feel what the benefits will be for them – and what will happen if things stay the same.

You have to open their eyes. If you don’t, nothing will change.

Where’s your genie?

Everybody knows the story of Aladdin.

Orphaned Arab street urchin finds magic lamp, gets three wishes from powerful genie and (through innate decency and ingenuity) triumphs over evil sorcerer to win heart of princess.

That’s the Disney version, anyway. The original story went a little differently.

In the original version, told to French writer Antoine Gallant in 1710 by a Syrian traveller, Aladdin was not an Arab. He was Chinese.

And he wasn’t an orphan. He was the lazy, self-absorbed son of a merchant, who despaired of his ne’er-do-well offspring and his feckless ways.

There was a genie. In fact, there were two: the genie of the lamp and the genie of the ring – neither of whom put any upper limit on the number of wishes Aladdin could claim.

And he did get the princess. But only because he used the power of the genie to spy on her while bathing, then interrupt her wedding and cast her husband-to-be (by all accounts, a very decent fellow) into a frozen wasteland, while he took the princess for himself.

In other words, not quite the Disney hero – more a rather creepy chancer.

My point is not to highlight the variations in the story. My point is that the variations don’t really matter.

Because the thing that makes the story compelling is the idea of having extraordinary supernatural powers that can make your every wish come true. That’s an idea guaranteed to get people talking (‘Hey – if you had three wishes and you could have whatever you wanted, what would you wish for…?’)

This is why the story of Aladdin has remained so popular with writers, film-makers and pantomime audiences for hundreds of years. And why you find variations of it in so many different cultures around the world.

It’s an example worth remembering next time you’re helping your CEO prepare for his management conference keynote – and he’s still agonising over the wording of the fourth bullet point on slide 27.

You and I both know there is not a chance in hell that anyone in the audience will remember what that fourth bullet point says (and, frankly, very little chance they’ll still be paying attention by slide 27, anyway).

In other words, the detail doesn’t matter.

He’d be better off ditching 26 of those slides and focusing on the one element of his story that is so compelling that it’s guaranteed to get people talking.

Aladdin’s magic lamp. Or John Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’. Or Martin Luther King’s dream.

Of course, we also both know that, when you strip away the detail, there’s a good chance the story that’s left will not be very compelling. No magic lamp – just a slightly dull change programme that will mean a lot more work for everyone in the short term.

But just imagine how much more effective that change programme would be if you could persuade the people at the top to step back from the detail and focus on creating a story that would get people talking.

If I could offer you three wishes right now, wouldn’t that be one of them?

A Messerchmitt up your arse

Keith Miller was an Australian all-rounder, widely regarded as one of the finest cricketers to have played the game.

He might have been the greatest ever, had his prime cricketing years not been interrupted by the second world war.

Instead of playing cricket, Miller spent most of the war years flying fighter-bombers on daring raids over occupied Europe.

On several occasions, he was lucky to escape with his life: he once crash-landed a burning Mosquito, only to clamber out of the wreckage and open the bowling for his local club side less than an hour later.

After the war, when normal cricketing hostilities resumed, Miller returned to England as part of Bradman’s ‘invincibles’, the famous Australian team who regained the Ashes without losing a match.

The games were often tighter than the results suggested. But invariably, whenever the Aussies were in trouble, it would be Miller who swung the momentum back in their favour, with a mighty innings or a terrifying bowling spell.

A reporter once asked him how he was able to cope so well with the pressure.

Miller grinned and replied:

‘Pressure? There’s no pressure in cricket. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse.’

For me, that’s a perfect summary of the value of perspective. And it feels particularly apt for the rather strange times we’re living through now.

Things that were considered impossible six months ago – offices closed, everyone working from home, no meetings, no travel – have become completely normal in the face of a lethal pandemic. Businesses have adapted. People have found a way.

And, in the process, a lot of those people have begun to ask themselves why so many of those things seemed impossible before. And, by extension, whether all the things that seemed important – milestones, priorities, deadlines, wearing a suit, catching the 7.22 train – were really quite so important after all.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘how things will be different’ in a post-Covid world. How we’ll all work from home more, we’ll prioritise our friends and families and be less concerned with material things.

Well, maybe.

But, if the one thing we learn from this lockdown is that there are vanishingly few work problems worth losing any sleep over, that will be enough.

Because, as Keith Miller memorably proved, when people have the freedom to express their talent – without being distracted by pressure from things that don’t really matter – that’s when they achieve extraordinary things.

Common sense, dancing

As a teenager growing up in the early 1980s, I wasn’t interested in reading newspapers.

Especially not big, dull, worthy newspapers like the Observer, which my parents used to get every Sunday.

But I did notice that, when my dad read the Observer, there was always one point where his expression would change.

His frown would disappear. His eyes would crinkle with pleasure. And, every now and then, he would grin – or even laugh out loud.

One week, he laughed so hard that he sprayed coffee all over his shirt. When he went to the kitchen to clean it off, I picked up the newspaper to see what was making him laugh that much.

It was Clive James’s weekly column of television criticism. I can’t remember exactly what the content covered that week, but chances are it will have included Dallas, Star Trek and athletics commentator David Coleman.

It was sharp, irreverent, well-informed and very, very funny.

The following week, I read the column again. It was even funnier. James had a magical – apparently effortless – gift for using language to highlight the ridiculous and skewer the pompous.

The way he wrote about television was so much better than actually watching television that it occurred to me, for the first time, that there might be some value in newspapers, after all.

Nearly forty years later, I still have three volumes of his TV criticism on my bookshelf – and I still enjoy them, even though the programmes they’re reviewing are a very vague and distant memory.

What made his writing so good? I’m not sure. Although his style was unique at the time, lots of columnists have since tried to copy it, with varying degrees of success.

But the one thing that always comes through loud and clear, even at his most scathing, is James’s absolute affection for his subject.

The ability to laugh at things we hold dear – and not hold them in reverential awe – is a valuable gift for any business leader and communicator.

As James himself put it:

‘A sense of humour and common sense are the same thing, working at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.’

Which is why you should always be wary of any business, or business leader, that takes themselves too seriously.

Clive would have skewered them.

To be clear

One phrase we can all expect to be hearing a lot over the next few weeks, as the election campaign hits its straps, is ‘I am very clear…’

Like most phrases beloved of politicians, its meaning has been diluted by overuse and insincerity.

Politicians generally say it when they want to sound like they’re setting out a clear position, without actually committing themselves to anything. Or when they’ve changed their position and don’t want to admit it.

The exact opposite of clarity, in other words.

I thought about this on Saturday morning, when I was watching the rugby world cup final at an event hosted by LG in London.

The result wasn’t what the audience was hoping for, but it was an enjoyable and well-run event (and the TV screen was spectacular!)

There was also a guest appearance from Dylan Hartley, the former England rugby captain – who, but for a poorly-timed knee injury, might have been leading his side into that final.

During a Q&A session after the game, Hartley offered a fascinating insight into what it takes to build a team that performs consistently at the highest level.

For much of the last four years, he has played a pivotal role in the journey England have been on under coach Eddie Jones – starting in the aftermath of their inglorious exit from the pool stage of the 2015 tournament they were hosting.

At that point, England were ranked eighth in the world.

When Jones was appointed as the new coach, he brought the whole squad together into a room and said: ‘In four years’ time, we will be going to the world cup in Japan as the number one ranked team.’

Nobody really believed him, says Hartley. Why would you? It seemed impossibly remote from where they were then.

But Jones was relentless.

He set demanding targets. He made the players work harder than they’d ever worked.

When one player made a five-hour trip to England training after a club match, Jones asked him how he was feeling.

‘A bit tired’, said the player.

‘Tired players are no use to me,’ said Jones and sent him home.

That may sound harsh, but it’s an example of what real clarity looks and sounds like.

As Hartley explains:

‘Language is very important to Eddie. He doesn’t want to hear anything that sounds like weakness, because it opens the door to the possibility of failure. He wants you to be utterly focused on achieving your aim.’

As Jones’s captain, it was Hartley’s job to bring that same clarity and focus into the changing room conversations and team huddles.

Gradually, the belief began to shift and the performances began to improve – culminating in a dominant victory over the previously all-conquering All Blacks that booked England’s place in Saturday’s final.

They didn’t win that final, of course. As Hartley readily accepts, they were ‘beaten by a better team on the day.’

But England turned up to the match as the number one ranked team in the world. Just like Eddie Jones said they would, four years ago.

That’s what real clarity does for you.