Why not?

If you were born after 1980, when you hear the name ‘Buzzcocks’, you probably think of a slightly arch musical quiz show on BBC2. (If you were born after 2000, BBC2 was a channel on a thing called television. Google it).

If you grew up in 1970s Britain, on the other hand, there’s a good chance the name will fill you with a warm glow of nostalgia.

Even if you didn’t really like punk, it would have been hard not to be drawn to the infectious energy of the Buzzcocks’ output. Songs like ‘What do I get?’, ‘Orgasm addict’ and ‘Whatever happened to…?’. Ear-worming riffs. Whip-sharp, slightly edgy lyrics. Cocky, confident posturing. All wrapped up with a knowing grin and a three-minute play-length. It was about as close as you get to perfect teenage music.

So today feels like a pretty sad day to me.

Pete Shelley, who died yesterday, was the man who formed and led the Buzzcocks and wrote all their best songs.

He was also a natural entrepreneur, who basically invented the idea of independent record labels.

When the Buzzcocks couldn’t get a deal with one of the big record companies who dominated the industry at the time, Pete talked family and friends into lending the band enough money to start pressing their own vinyl EPs, which they sold in the Virgin record store in Manchester.

20 years before the internet was invented, the Buzzcocks went viral through sheer energy and bloody-minded determination: playing gigs, building an audience, hustling record stores and, eventually, elbowing their way into the mainstream.

Their best-known number – ‘Ever fallen in love (with someone you shouldn’t have)?’ – was a brilliant reinvention of that old pop cliché, the love song.

It was also unusual, at that time, in being written as a love song to another man. While Elton John was coyly getting married to a woman, Pete was quite comfortable talking openly about his bisexuality.

Pete Shelley broke the mould. He made his band successful without any help from the music industry behemoths.

Along the way, he helped to democratise popular music – and pave the way for a much more eclectic and authentic soundtrack to my (and many other peoples’) youths than those behemoths would ever have allowed.

And he did it all with a smile on his face.

So, if you want a template for authenticity, creativity and sheer can-do determination, my advice is to google ‘Buzzcocks’ and keep scrolling down until you get to the band.

Let the giraffes out

A few years ago, a little girl named Lily Robinson wrote to Sainsbury’s about their bread. This is what her letter said:

Dear Sainssssssssssssbbbbbbbbbbbbbburyyyys,

Why is tiger bread called tiger bread?

It should be called giraffe bread.

Love from Lily Robinson (age 3 ½)

When you look at the product, you can see that she’s got a point. Lots of spots, no stripes: definitely much more like a giraffe than a tiger.

Lily’s letter ended up in the in-tray of a man named Chris King, a manager in Sainsbury’s customer service team. He liked the letter and he wrote one back in a similar style:

Dear Lily

Thanks so much for your letter. I think renaming tiger bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea – it looks much more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it?

It is called tiger bread because the first baker who made it a loooong time ago thought it looked stripey like a tiger. Maybe they were a bit silly.

I really liked reading your letter so I thought I would send you a little present. I’ve put a £3 gift card in with this letter. If you ask your mum or dad to take you to Sainsbury’s, you could use it to buy some of your own tiger bread (and maybe if mum and dad say it’s OK, you can get some sweeties too!) Please tell an adult to wait 48 hours before using this card.

I’m glad you wrote to us and hope you like spending your gift card. See you in store soon.

Yours sincerely, Chris King (age 27 ½)

Customer Manager

Lily’s mother was so delighted with this charming reply that she posted it on her blog. It quickly went viral, was picked up by the media and earned Sainsbury’s a lot of very positive publicity.

What’s interesting about this story is that Chris King was not acting in line with what was expected of him as a Sainsbury’s customer service manager when he wrote that letter. Quite the opposite.

The customer service team is there to deal with customer concerns and protect Sainsbury’s reputation as efficiently and effectively as possible. Being brutal, it’s about keeping the noise down.

Lily’s letter wasn’t noise: it wasn’t a business risk and it didn’t really require much attention. He could have just written a standard reply along the lines of ‘thank you for your interest in Sainsbury’s – please find enclosed a gift token.’ That would have been the correct thing to do; the efficient, standard, procedurally-compliant thing to do.

But Chris King didn’t do that. He wanted to be more than just efficient and professional. He wanted to respond like a human being. And, by doing that, he made Sainsbury’s seem human and likeable, too.

Not because of their procedures but in spite of them.

Sometimes, you just have to let go

Wikipedia was set up 17 years ago as an experiment in collaborative knowledge-building. It’s now the world’s fifth most visited website – and the first place most people turn for information about anything.

What’s interesting about Wikipedia is that it subverts the previous norm. Instead of being curated by experts, it depends entirely on volunteers to submit and update its content.

Detractors have claimed that this makes Wikipedia unreliable. How can you trust the accuracy of information, they argue, if you don’t know the authority of the source?

They’ve got a point: there have been well-documented examples of howling errors, as well as allegations of entries being manipulated by interested parties (including the CIA and political lobbyists).

On the other hand, Wikipedia includes over 48 million separate detailed entries, written in 293 languages. In almost every case, those entries were written – and moderated – by people with a far greater knowledge of their subject than could ever be possible with traditional reference sources, such as Encyclopedia Britannica or Larousse.

No matter how good your paid researchers might be, it’s simply not economically viable to have enough of them, with diverse enough backgrounds, to be able to know that much about that much.

Wikipedia is a trade-off: you lose a bit of certainty, but you gain a massive increase in depth, variety and richness of content.

It’s the same trade-off most big businesses struggle with every day.

On the one hand, they want to ‘empower’ their employees. They know that, in many cases, those employees have a much more direct connection with customers than the people at the top of the business. They want them to use their initiative to be more agile – and their personality to inject warmth and humanity into their daily work.

They know that, if they can do that, their customers will have a much better experience and their business will be more successful.

But, on the other hand, most businesses are terrified of giving up control. They’re scared that, given too much real autonomy, their employees will make bad decisions that damage their reputation or lose them money.

And they’re right. If you give your employees a genuinely free hand, in some cases they will make bad decisions.

But, if you don’t open yourself up to that possibility, you’ll never be able to harness the incredible creative and human benefits that real empowerment can bring to your business.

Your call.

 

Why we should all be feminists

It’s official.

Men are, on average, more systems-oriented than women.

Women, on average, have higher empathy levels than men.

These were the not-very-startling conclusions to emerge, last week, from a Cambridge University report into gender differences, based on a study of over 700,000 people.

The report’s author, Simon Baron-Cohen, is a professor of developmental psychopathology and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

He is also, more intriguingly, the cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose best-known creation, Borat, was funny because of his unreconstructed attitudes to gender, race and sexual orientation.

In Borat’s world view, a woman was for cooking and children and ‘sexy time’ –  and quite specifically not for any position of responsibility, such as presenting a television programme or running a corporation.

The odd thing is that, if you peek inside the boardroom of almost any FTSE 100 business today, you might be forgiven for thinking Borat’s world view isn’t quite so comical after all.

Of the hundred Chief Executives in those companies, only six are women.

Yet, when you look at the trajectory of the businesses, most of them are having to adapt their model rapidly, to survive in a world where customer experience and reputation are becoming the only measures that count.

It’s a world where empathy is an increasingly important skill. Where humanity trumps efficiency. And where agility trumps process.

And yet it’s also a world where the people setting the cultural agenda are men.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to suggest the only way to make a process-driven business more human is to hire a female chief executive. It’s obviously not that binary. There are plenty of male executives whose empathy levels are well above average (and plenty of female executives who are more at home with a spreadsheet than a friendly chat).

I’m also aware that this may sound like virtue-signalling from a middle-aged white man.

So let me get to the point.

The pace of technological change is getting faster and faster. The life-span of businesses is getting shorter and shorter. Customer relationships are getting more and more important. The only way to succeed in the long-term is to have a business that connects with people in a meaningful way. The only way to do that is by building a culture based on empathy. And women are, on average, more empathetic than men.

So you don’t need to be a feminist to think there should be more women setting the agenda at our biggest companies.

You just need to do the maths.

 

If it ain’t broke…

Douglas Haig was the Commander of the British troops on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918.

He was also a cavalry officer. So he knew the quickest way to win a battle was with a decisive thrust by mounted troops, who could move fast, get in behind the enemy and capture ground quickly for the infantry to consolidate.

That was the prevailing military orthodoxy. That’s what he’d been taught at Sandhurst. That was the way battles had been fought and won for the last 300 years.

So, when military designers approached him in 1915 with a prototype for a ‘land ship’ – an armoured vehicle with caterpillar tracks and guns – he couldn’t see the point. The new weapon was mechanically unreliable, difficult to manoeuvre and nowhere near as fast as a galloping horse.

But, as the war on the Western front continued to be a bloody stalemate, Haig was frustrated. He needed to find a way of breaking through the well-entrenched German lines, so he could deploy his cavalry and win the battle.

So he contacted the designers and told them to send everything they had – at the time, around 50 vehicles (which, by now, were being referred to as ‘tanks’, in a bid to persuade enemy spies they were just for transporting water).

By the time they got to the front, only 32 of the 50 tanks were still working, but Haig threw them straight into battle. It was a qualified success – only nine made it as far as the German trenches. But they did some damage, so he persevered.

Over the next two years, the technology improved. The tanks got quicker and more manoeuvrable. By 1918, they were an established weapon: over 500 of them took part in the decisive battles of the hundred-day offensive that eventually broke the German lines and ended the war.

What’s interesting is the conclusion both sides drew about the tank as a weapon after the war ended.

The British still saw it as a tactical solution to a specific problem (breaking through a defensive line).

Whereas the Germans, having experienced tanks from the sharp end, realised they were a devastating new way of fighting wars – and re-designed their whole military strategy around them.

22 years later, their Panzers came back to Northern France and ran straight through the French and British armies, who didn’t know what hit them.

You see the same thing in business all the time.

Some companies embrace innovation as a way to completely transform the way they work and the experience they offer their customers.

And some see it as a way to keep doing the same things that worked last time, only a bit quicker and cheaper.

Like the British army in 1939, they’re still fighting the last war.

 

What’s that ticking noise…?

In 1958, the average lifespan of a business in the American S&P500 index was 61 years. Today, it’s 18 years. By 2028, it will be nearer 11.

In fact, according to a study by the Yale School of Management, it’s likely that around three-quarters of the companies in the S&P500 today will have disappeared from it altogether in ten years’ time.

No wonder CEOs are jumpy.

They know that, if they don’t keep reinventing their business, it won’t be one of the 25% that survives beyond the ten-year mark.

But they also know that, if they don’t hit their short-term targets, they probably won’t be around long enough to make the changes anyway.

With operating costs already cut to the bone, those targets are getting harder and harder to hit, which means there’s very little margin for error.

And that’s precisely where the problem comes.

When you’re looking for creative ways to reinvent your business, the surest path to failure is to play it safe. A little bit of incremental change here, an extra blade on your safety razor there. These are not the things that will save your business when a disruptive new competitor rips up the rule book and starts eating your lunch.

But, when your primary business focus is on delivering short-term results, you’re unlikely to have a culture where people embrace risk and failure.

It’s far more likely to be a culture where people stick rigidly to the processes and ideas that worked last time. A high-compliance culture, where contribution is measured only in numbers. And where nobody wants to admit that something hasn’t worked.

That’s not an environment where new ideas are likely to flourish. And, unless you can do something to change it, your business will inevitably suffocate and die – sooner rather than later, according to the Yale study.

So, what can you do? How do you take a workforce of people conditioned to be compliant process-followers and turn them into agile entrepreneurs?

Well, the bad news is that there’s no process for it. There’s no template to follow. No lever to pull.

The only way to do it is by changing the culture of your business. And the only way to do that is if you – and every other leader in the business – really wants to.

Everything else – launching a new purpose and values, polishing your employee value proposition, setting up a ‘creativity lab’ – is just a more or less interesting way of avoiding the issue.

You hear that ticking noise?

That’s time running out.

Beware of spurious correlations

Human beings are wired to look for ‘meaning’, which makes us eager to spot connections that sometimes simply aren’t there. That’s never been truer than in today’s era of ‘big data’.

Tyler Vigen is a criminology student at Harvard who set up his own website to highlight how easy it can be to draw ludicrous conclusions from data because of the way we’re taught to look for patterns.

Vigen has loaded up a number of different sets of random data on his site and then cross-related them to identify apparent (but clearly nonsensical) statistical similarities. For example, as you can see above, there seems to be a clear link between the divorce rate in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine in the US.

Similarly, you might say there was a link between the per capita consumption of cheese and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets:

chart (1)

Clearly, there isn’t really a link in either case. But it’s easy to imagine that people might accept there was – and unnerving to realise how readily we accept this kind of correlation when presented to justify a medical or scientific or commercial conclusion.

Vigen calls them ‘spurious correlations’. You can find many more examples (and even create your own) by visiting www.tylervigen.com. It’s quite amusing.

Alternatively, you could look a little harder at some of the ‘facts’ that get used in presentations around your own business and see how many of them actually stand up to robust statistical scrutiny.

Not so amusing, but potentially more revealing.

 

When engagement isn’t engaging

‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure’.

That’s Goodhart’s law (named after the economist Charles Goodhart, who first articulated it to explain why private enterprise principles introduced by the Thatcher government hadn’t worked very well).

I thought about it this morning, when I was going through my emails and found one inviting me to ‘The Engaging Employees Conference’ in London.

Of the 32 scheduled speakers, the one that most caught my eye was the HR Director of Wonga, a business that collapsed five weeks ago and is currently being wound down by the administrators.

Since the sub-title of the conference is ‘Optimising Performance’, having a speaker from a failed business is probably inconvenient for the organisers. But it’s also a timely reminder for delegates of what they should really be focused on.

The fetish for measuring employee engagement has been steadily gaining ground since Gallup first pioneered it in the 1990s, with their Q12 Survey. This invited employees to answer (anonymously) twelve different questions about their experience of work. ‘Do you understand what the business is trying to achieve?’; ‘Do you understand what’s expected of you?’; ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’ and so on.

The idea is that, if you keep asking the same questions every six months, the movement in the scores will tell you which bits you’re getting right, which bits you need to focus on and, ultimately, how engaged your employees are.

According to Gallup, businesses with high Q12 scores demonstrate significantly better performance: lower turnover of staff, higher sales growth, greater productivity, better customer satisfaction scores. Which is why nearly every large organisation nowadays carries out some kind of engagement survey.

The problem, as Wonga and others have found, is that improving your engagement score does not necessarily lead to improved performance.

It’s a perfect example of Goodhart’s law in operation.

An engagement survey is useful if it helps you build a true picture of the experience your employees have at work. As soon as you turn it into a target, you’re blurring that picture and encouraging managers to ‘game’ the numbers so that their score always shows improvement, even though the underlying experience may not. It’s the tail wagging the dog.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m 100% in favour of engaging employees.

I just think the best way to do it is by focusing on the things that will improve their experience of working in your organisation.

Not asking them the same questions over and over again – and then fiddling the numbers to tell a story they don’t recognise.

We’re all in this together (yeah, right)

It’s a funny word, collaboration.

Seventy years ago, it was the worst kind of insult. It meant you’d betrayed your country and helped the enemy. If you were identified as a collaborator in post-liberation Paris in 1945, you’d be marched through the street with your head shaved, so your neighbours could jeer at you and throw rotten fruit.

But times have changed and the word has recovered a more positive meaning. Politicians now speak proudly of ‘cross-party collaboration’, fading music stars ‘collaborate’ with edgy hip-hop producers – and big companies want to unlock a brave new world of creativity by ‘making it easy for our people to collaborate and share ideas’.

The trouble is: why would you want to?

I mean, it’s easy to see what’s in it for the company. They want their employees to be more ‘open’ and ‘giving’, to embrace the hackathon culture of hip Silicon Valley tech companies; to tap into a sparkling well of innovation and value.

But it’s a lot less easy to see what’s in it for everyone else. Employees who do collaborate often find it doesn’t benefit them – quite the reverse, in fact. They see their ideas co-opted by others and used as a stepping stone to promotions and rewards that pass them by. So why bother?

The problem is that we want collaboration, but we encourage competitiveness.

We want people to work as a team, but we reward individuals.

In its most recent annual survey, the High Pay Centre noted that, between 2016 and 2017, the average annual pay of a FTSE 100 boss rose by 11% to £3.93m. That’s roughly 145 times more than their average employee earns.

Now, as it happens, I know a few FTSE 100 bosses – and they are (mostly) smart and charismatic and capable people. Not the uncaring, out-of-touch corporate fat cats lampooned in the tabloid press.

But the point I always try to make to them is that, if you really want people to collaborate, engage and share their best ideas, you need to create an environment where they feel comfortable and appreciated for doing it.

Because, if you don’t, it won’t be long till collaboration is a dirty word again.

I wouldn’t start from here

There’s an old Irish joke about a city boy from Dublin, who comes out to the country for his cousin’s wedding.

He can’t remember the way, so he stops to ask a farmer for directions. The farmer looks at him, scratches his head, thinks for a moment, frowns and says:

‘You know, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’

I feel a bit like that when I’m talking to clients and they ask me (always with the same slightly embarrassed tone) how to make their SharePoint pages more engaging.

Let’s face it, if you were setting up your internal channels from scratch, how many of us would choose SharePoint as the hub? It’s an archive system, originally designed for document retrieval. Which is fine, if you want people to use it like a reference library – but not much use if you want to get them engaged with what’s going on in your organisation.

Not surprisingly, every single comms person I know agrees that SharePoint is, at best, a mediocre solution to their communication needs.

And yet, nearly all of them work for organisations that insist they use it, because ‘it’s the industry standard’. It comes as part of Office 365, it’s easy and cost-effective, the IT people are comfortable with it, it’s a done deal.

So the comms people accept it as a regrettable fact of corporate life. And, every now and then, they give us a call to see if we can wave a magic wand and make people interested in using it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have the work.

But imagine if that happened in your marketing department: ‘We want you to make our brand really cool – but we don’t want to spend money on TV or digital, so we’ve booked you some slots on post office noticeboards…’

Or your logistics department: ‘Yes, I realise articulated lorries are a more efficient way to shift large loads, but the chairman breeds Alpacas, so that’s what we’ll be using…’

It makes me wonder whether these organisations have understood the importance of engaging their people after all – or whether they still think communication is just a box to be ticked.

Because, if you really do want to engage your people, I wouldn’t start from here.