Context is everything

How long would it take you to cover five miles on foot?

Depending on your level of fitness, your answer would probably be somewhere between 30 minutes and three hours.

And you’d be wrong.

Because what I didn’t tell you is that the five miles start at Everest base camp in the Himalayas and go straight up the world’s highest mountain. Even if you made it to the summit, you’d be most unlikely to cover the five miles in less than two days.

That’s the thing with information: it’s all about context.

And that’s why the first job of everyone who communicates inside a business – whether you’re the CEO or a junior project manager – is to provide a context that will make the information meaningful.

What do people need to know? What’s it got to do with them? Why should they care?

Until you can answer those three questions clearly and simply, you may as well not bother communicating.

Beware of shortcuts

In 1576, an English sailor named Martin Frobisher set off in search of the Northwest passage. It was the height of the Elizabethan craze for exploration – anyone who could find a shortcut round the obstacle of North America would have been made for life.

Unfortunately, Frobisher didn’t find the passage: after several months of frozen hardship, he was forced to give up and come home.

He didn’t come empty-handed, though. In the course of his exploration, the local Inuit tribes had given him a large lump of rock, which glittered when it caught the light. One of his officers excitedly identified it as gold ore.

On his return to London, Frobisher presented it to the Queen, who was delighted at the prospect of a gold supply to rival that of the Spanish conquistadores.

Frobisher was sent back for more. He returned with three shipfuls, to a hero’s welcome. The ore was carried up to Dartford to be smelted (something they hadn’t bothered trying with the sample), at which point they discovered it was just worthless iron pyrites – fool’s gold.

You see the same thing happen in businesses every day.

Even the most hard-nosed executives find it hard not to be seduced by the idea of shortcuts: silver bullets (if you’ll forgive me mixing my mineral metaphors) that will magically solve the business’s problems.

The trouble with silver bullets is that, every time they turn out to be duds, a little bit of credibility dies. The people who work in those businesses become so used to hearing about ‘the next big thing’ that they switch off and stop listening.

They also stop thinking about the job they were supposed to be doing (in this case, finding the Northwest passage). Because, let’s face it, if your leaders don’t seem to be thinking about it any more, why should you be?

That’s the point. You can’t expect your people to be focused on your priorities, if you keep distracting them with shiny new ones.

(In case you’re worried about Frobisher, the good news is that he bounced back from this embarrassing setback to have a distinguished and successful naval career.

The fool’s gold, meanwhile, was melted down and used as a road-covering for the area around what is now the Bank of England – which is where that story about London’s streets being paved with gold comes from).

Big data will drown you if you let it

You hear a lot about Big Data these days: using powerful computers to collect and analyse information on a massive scale.

There’s no doubt that Big Data can be a very good thing. It’s made our weather forecasts much more accurate; it’s helping scientists to model and predict natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis; and it’s giving brands the opportunity to understand and connect with customers in a more helpful and personal way.

But too much data can also be a bad thing. It can paralyse decision-making, distract attention and confer an unwarranted legitimacy on bad ideas.

IBM recently estimated that some 2.5 quintillion bytes of information are created every day. That doesn’t even sound like a real number, so perhaps I should tell you that it’s 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. Or, to put it another way, 350Mb of data for every man, woman and child on the planet. Every day.

I don’t know how long it would take you to fill up 350Mb of spreadsheet, but that sounds like quite a lot of data to me.  And, since I’m pretty sure there are some toddlers and people in the Amazon rainforest who aren’t using up their daily data quota, that means the real number the rest of us are getting through is even larger.

We generate vast amounts of information in almost everything we do every day: from the items on our supermarket checkout bill to web cookies to the CCTV cameras that follow us around town. And, increasingly, that information is being used as the backdrop and justification for nearly everything we do in business.

So, is it helping us to make better decisions? Or is it just creating confusion?

The reality is that, in many cases, the sheer scale of information available to us is overwhelming. We don’t know where to start looking – or where to stop. We often carve out data at random. And, worse, we often draw entirely the wrong conclusions from it.

I once saw the same data used in the same business to tell two totally conflicting stories. Not just opposed, but 100% diametrically opposed. What’s odd about this is that the people on both sides were acting in good faith. They didn’t hide anything. They didn’t make anything up. It’s just that they were both interpreting the data according to what they wanted to hear.

Twenty years ago, information was power. Now we’re drowning in the stuff.

The real power lies in being able to explain what it means.

Repeat after me

Repetition makes things easier to remember.

That’s one of the first things they teach you at advertising school. Most of the great brands were built on slogans that have endured for years.

Candy Cane shaped cookie cutter cutting sugar cookie dough

It must also be one of the first things they teach you at politician school. No-one who lived through the most recent UK general election can have failed to hear the words ‘strong and stable leadership’ repeated ad nauseam by anyone in a blue tie or dress.

The problem with repetition is that it’s only half the story. Getting people to remember your slogan does not necessarily translate into persuading people to buy what you’re selling. For that to happen, your slogan also has to be compelling.

‘Strong and stable leadership’ was not a compelling slogan: it was just a rather dull claim. Worse, it wasn’t even a credible claim. As Theresa May’s gaffe-laden campaign rolled off the rails and into the ditch, ‘strong and stable’ began to sound not just patronising, but needy, desperate and lacking in substance.

By contrast, ‘for the many, not the few’ was a much more compelling slogan. It was a promise that sounded like it might be worth listening to – the promise of a better, fairer country. It was positive. It was meaningful. It resonated with more impressionable, younger voters. And, unlike ‘strong and stable’, its credibility grew over time, as the words coming out of Jeremy Corbyn’s mouth seemed to chime with the promise he was making.

I don’t make this point because I have a political axe to grind (for the record, I didn’t vote for either of them).

I make it because there’s a vital lesson in here that the leadership team in every organisation can learn from. The lesson is that you can’t expect to engage people with a message that’s dull, meaningless or lacking in authenticity. You can make people remember it, but you can’t make them believe it – and you certainly can’t make them buy into it.

Repetition is part of making a message memorable. But the first, and most important, part is to have a message that’s worth remembering in the first place.

There’s a good, chemical reason for this. Whenever we see or hear something that stimulates or excites us, it sets off a little charge of dopamine in our brains. This acts like a kind of mental post-it note, making it easy for our sub-conscious to access the memory. But, if there’s nothing interesting, there won’t be any dopamine and you’re going to have to work very hard to get people to remember your message, let alone care about it.

In other words, learn from Theresa May’s experience.

You can’t bore people into paying attention, so don’t waste time worrying about whether you’re ‘on message’.

Worry about the message you’re on.

What we can learn from chickens

About 20 years ago, geneticists at Purdue University in Indiana set up an experiment to learn more about natural selection, by studying the egg-laying productivity of two groups of chickens.

In the first group, the ‘free flock’, chickens could roam and mingle as they pleased, with no pressure to produce. The second group, by contrast, was made up of all the most productive hens, housed together and encouraged to compete. The idea was to see whether increasing competition would increase productivity.

Several generations later, the free flock was laying eggs at a brisk and productive pace.  The hens seemed happy, the atmosphere calm and contented – and they passed their days doing pretty much as they pleased (which often involved laying eggs).

In the high-achievers’ flock, by contrast, the story was a rather less happy one. Many of the hens were dead, pecked to death by rival birds that had identified them as a threat. Those that survived were eking out a strained and unproductive existence, focused more on protecting themselves and harrying each other than on laying eggs.

The researchers had made a fascinating, if accidental, discovery: when you create a competitive culture among chickens, not only does it not make them more productive – it can have seriously destructive side-effects.

William Muir, the world-renowned geneticist who conducted the study, said that when he showed the carnage to one of his colleagues, she said: ‘That reminds me of my department.’

I suspect a lot of people in business might say the same.

The chicken story is one of the examples quoted by Margaret Hefferman in her book A Bigger Prize, which is a compelling deconstruction of the traditional view that competition is always a good thing.

Hefferman argues that the importance of competition in sport (fuelled by financial incentives) has prompted an epidemic of cheating, bad behaviour and destructive drug use. If you want examples, consider the chequered recent history of FIFA, the Olympics and the tour de France.

Similarly, the world of business – and particularly, in recent years, financial services – is littered with examples of bad decisions prompted by a culture of competition. Bankers offloading toxic mortgages to boost their bonus pot. Executives holding back profit, so they can hit their target in two consecutive quarters rather than declaring it all in one. Managers claiming credit for the work done by others.

As tasks and ways of working become more opaque and complex, we’re effectively encouraging people to ‘game’ the system and to put short-term self-interest ahead of bigger and more worthy motivations.

Which is not to say that competition is always a bad thing.

Just so long as we remember which flock of chickens we’d rather belong to.

The power of the tribe

Every Saturday, millions of people across the United Kingdom get dressed up in the brand uniform of a business they don’t work for.

They make tortuous journeys to get to the workplace of that business.

They give up hours, sometimes days, of their time.

They put up with appalling conditions – rain, sleet, snow, overpriced beer, dodgy burgers, personal abuse – and they’re happy to do it.

In fact, they’ll even hand over a significant portion of their income for the privilege of doing it. (By ‘it’, of course, I mean watching 11 employees of that business kick a piece of leather round a grass pitch, while 11 employees wearing a rival brand’s uniform try to take it off them).

On Monday morning, those same people walk through the door of a different business. A business where they don’t have to put up with rain driving into their faces, or questionable catering facilities. A business that pays them, instead of the other way round. A business that develops their skills and offers them a pension to look after them when they’re older.

And they’re probably quite happy to work for that business.

But they all know, deep down, that if they had to choose, they’d always choose the first business.

That’s what emotional engagement really looks like.

That’s what it means to be part of a tribe.

You can’t build a tribe by sending out all-staff emails, tinkering with identity refreshes and polishing your values statement.

If you want to get close to that kind of connection with your workforce, you need to focus on building a different kind of culture.

One based on human stories and shared experiences.

Leopard focus

A few years ago, I met a man by the name of Stephen Fear.

Stephen was 15 when he left school to start his first business. The trouble was that he needed a phone and, on the council estate in Bristol where he lived, nobody could afford a phone. So he stuck an ‘out of order’ sign on the red telephone box at the end of the road and turned that into his office.

After a while, he got friendly with the operator and persuaded her to pretend to be his secretary, so that he could talk an American cleaning products firm into making him their European distributor.

By the age of 20, he’d made his first million. Pretty focused.

Stephen Fear is now a multi-billionaire who owns more than 60 businesses. He also enjoys the rather exotic title of ‘entrepreneur in residence’ at the British Library, a role which sees him act as mentor to a wide range of budding new businesses.

One of the first things he does is to tell them this story.

A female leopard, out hunting to feed her young, will sit for hours perfectly still, watching her prey and waiting for the perfect moment to pounce.

However hot or tired or hungry or uncomfortable she becomes, the leopard will not move, will not shift her eyes, not even for one second – because, in that second, the perfect moment may be lost.

Flies buzz around her head; the leopard doesn’t move. The flies get bolder, edge closer and eventually land on her face; the leopard doesn’t move. The flies start sucking the water from inside the lids of her eyes; the leopard doesn’t move.

For hours – days, sometimes – the leopard forces herself to ignore a series of almost unimaginably torturous and uncomfortable distractions without once shifting her gaze. All she’s allowing herself to think about is catching a meal. Because, if she doesn’t, her cubs will starve.

None of the budding entrepreneurs mentored by Stephen Fear is likely to have starving children, but they all get the point. If you want your business to succeed, you have to cultivate that same leopard focus.

The trouble is that, as any business grows, it’s likely to become more complex, which makes it harder to stay focused on one thing. People get so caught up in executing detailed processes that they lose sight of why they’re doing it in the first place. They make bad decisions.

That’s why Stephen Fear keeps telling the people he’s mentoring about the leopard.

So they’ll stop getting distracted and focus their attention on the one thing that really matters.

What empowerment really looks like

Carwyn James was the Brian Clough of rugby: a brilliant coach who never managed his national team, but who was right at the heart of the golden age of Welsh rugby.

Back in the days when rugby was still an amateur game (which meant he didn’t get paid), James was the coach all the players wanted to play for – and all the other coaches secretly wanted to be.

He is still the only coach to lead a victorious Lions tour of New Zealand. In fact, he made a habit of beating the otherwise all-conquering All Blacks. He beat them with his club side, Llanelli, in 1973. A few months later, in perhaps his greatest triumph, he beat them with a scratch Barbarians side in a legendary encounter in Cardiff.

Before the Barbarians game kicked off, James wandered over to have a quiet word with Phil Bennett, his gifted, but nervous, young fly-half.

‘You’ve got a lovely sidestep, Phil’, he said. ‘But I don’t suppose you’ll use it today. Which is a shame, really. These All Blacks were built to be side-stepped. I reckon you could side-step them off the park.’

A few minutes into the game, the All Blacks kicked the ball deep into the Barbarians’ half. Bennett caught it near his own goal-line and looked up to see three All Blacks bearing menacingly down on him.

In a moment of breathtaking brilliance, he side-stepped all three and began a daring counter-attack, which resulted in a try still regarded by most rugby lovers, even 45 years later, as the greatest ever scored.

It’s a moment that perfectly sums up what made Carwyn James so successful: brilliant tactical insight, combined with a willingness to let his players express themselves – and the great gift of making them feel confident enough to do it.

He made it look effortless but, in fact, he worked very hard at it. Long before video analysis became fashionable, James used to spend hours poring over old newsreel footage of his adversaries, working out what made them tick and where to find the chinks in their armour.

But he never burdened his players with any of that detail. He told them what he’d worked out and which areas they needed to focus on. Then he gave them the freedom and confidence to make the most of his insight and their talents. He made it simple.

That’s why his players loved him. And why the crowds would always flock to watch any team he was coaching.

Sadly, Carwyn James died in 1983, when he was just 53. If he were still alive today, though, it’s a safe bet that he would be earning a very comfortable living as an ‘empowerment’ guru.

You hear a lot of businesses talk about empowerment these days.

The trouble is: most of the people who work in those businesses are so busy trying to follow the manual that they never have a chance to show off their sidestep.

People relate to people. Not numbers.

During the Ethiopian famine in 1984, BBC reporter Michael Buerk broadcast a series of harrowing reports from the refugee camp at Korem.

These reports had a powerful effect on people watching on their sofas back in the UK – none more so than Bob Geldof, who picked up the phone, called Ultravox singer Midge Ure and said ‘we’ve got to do something’.

That ‘something’ turned into BandAid – then LiveAid. Geldof and his collaborators raised hundreds of millions of dollars and focused the attention of the world on the crisis in Africa. All because of Michael Buerk’s report.

Interestingly, Buerk had been broadcasting reports from Ethiopia for several weeks, but no one had really paid much attention up until then.

This was because all his previous reports had focused on the scale of the tragedy – and the scale was so vast that it was literally overwhelming: seven million people affected, thousands dying every week, mountains of corpses being burned to help prevent the spread of disease.

It was too big for people in the UK to get their heads round – the numbers didn’t really mean anything.

But the power of the close-up images inside the camp made it shockingly real for the viewing audience. They couldn’t understand ten thousand corpses, but they could understand a small child who was going to be dead before nightfall because there wasn’t enough food.

That’s because people don’t relate to numbers: they relate to people, to feelings, to their own experience.

Politicians know this (Joseph Stalin once drily observed that ‘one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic’).

Stand-up comedians know it, too. That’s why they talk about things in specific, personal terms – ‘have you ever noticed how…’ – rather than abstract ideas.

Most businesses, unfortunately, don’t seem to know it. They still think ‘£100M investment in new warehouse’ is a brilliant story for their employee newsletter. Because they don’t realise that, to 90% of the people in their business, ‘£100M investment in new warehouse’ doesn’t really mean anything.

People understand the words: they just don’t understand what those words mean for them. Is it good or bad? Does it mean customers will be happier because the supply chain works more efficiently? Or does it mean there’ll be less money for other things (like pay rises)?

If you want people to pay attention, you need to stop trying to impress them with numbers and give them something they can relate to.