Do no evil (no, really)

The week’s big news – how Cambridge Analytica allegedly bought profile data from Facebook and used it to influence the outcome of the US election – has offered a fascinating (if terrifying) glimpse into the world of online data analysis.

Among the many jaw-dropping revelations and tone-deaf Twitter responses, the standout moment was the interview with Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s (now suspended) CEO.

When it was put to Nix that he had been caught on camera boasting about how his business had used data to influence the election outcome, his dismissive explanation was that he had been pitching for new business, so was obviously saying whatever the client wanted to hear.

What I found interesting was that he clearly imagined this made it okay. Which got me wondering: how messed up must your organisation’s moral compass be if ‘We routinely lie to prospective clients in order to get their money’ feels like a brand positioning you’re happy with?

Perhaps I’m naïve. Nix certainly seemed to feel he was being unfairly singled out for a practice that was routine in his industry. The board of Cambridge Analytica disagreed and threw him under the bus.

No doubt, this will shortly be followed by the disappearance of what has now become a toxic brand – and the business will quietly re-emerge with a new name, a new set of corporate values and (for at least a little while) a loud determination to act in a purely ethical manner.

Will this fix the problem? Or will it just be a temporary diversion, until the new leaders realise they’re losing market share to competitors who are still being less scrupulous about the way they manage data?

That’s the problem with ethics. As soon as you start finding ‘grey areas’, where you can make compromises that boost your profits without actually breaking the law, it’s tempting for under-pressure leaders to embrace them.

Which is exactly where ‘good’ businesses go bad. If your engineers get rewarded for finding ways to mysteriously improve your emissions test performance, that’s bad (Volkswagen). If your sales people get a bonus for selling people financial insurance they don’t need, that’s bad (any bank that mis-sold PPI).

But is either of those ethically worse than avoiding tax? Or deliberately paying your suppliers 60 days later than your commercial terms said you would? (Almost every large business I’ve ever dealt with).

Very few companies are actually ‘bad’. But don’t kid yourself that having a page of values that say things like ‘integrity’ and ‘transparency’ and ‘fairness’ is going to save you from public scrutiny when you’re caught crossing an ethical line.

Culture is about every single thing you do as a business. As soon as you start turning a blind eye to (or worse, rewarding) bad behaviour, you’re in the same boat as Alexander Nix.

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)


What’s the one big thing?

Imagine you’re lost in Africa with a small group of people. You don’t know where you are, or which direction you should head. You’ve got no food, no water, no transport. And there’s a hippo coming towards you.

What do you do?

The answer is: you get out of the way of the hippo. Hippos are vicious; they kill three thousand people a year in Africa.

That’s not to say the other problems aren’t serious problems. They are – and you’re going to have to deal with them. But the hippo is the one big thing you have to deal with now because, if you don’t, you’ll die.

You know that because you’re smart.

But let’s imagine, for a moment, that you’re not so smart and you don’t realise quite how dangerous the hippo is. Maybe it’s just lumbering towards you in an apparently amiable way. Maybe you remember the BBC2 idents with the adorable baby hippos shot from underneath as they swim in slow motion.

So you and your companions ignore the hippo and start focusing on your other problems. We need clean water, someone says. If we don’t find something to drink in two days, we’ll die. That’s bad, right? Everyone nods and starts looking for water containers.

Then someone else points out that, actually, water isn’t your biggest problem. Your chances of surviving as long as two days in the African bush are so slight that it’s much more important to figure out where you are and find a way out. If you don’t, you might die in much less than two days. So you forget the water containers and start planning escape routes.

And, while you’re doing that, Harry the hippo comes round the corner and tramples you all to death.

That’s what happens to businesses all over the world every day. They get so caught up in their day-to-day problems that they miss the one big thing that’s going to kill them.

50 years ago, that wasn’t such a problem. According to strategy agency Innosight, a business listed in the S&P500 index in 1965 could expect to stay there for 33 years on average. By 2026, the average tenure will be just 14 years. In other words, things are moving faster. It’s getting harder to survive.

That’s why, if you’re a business leader, your first and most important job is to provide focus.

What’s the one big thing you need to get right? The biggest threat? The opportunity you can’t afford to miss? Make sure everyone is absolutely clear about it.

Because, if you don’t, the hippo will get you.

False economies

A little while ago, a client gave me some video footage and asked me to edit it into a film.

There were two problems: the video footage wasn’t very good and it didn’t actually capture the content that was needed to make the message of the film come across. Luckily, both problems were easy to solve.

I said: ‘We’ll just shoot that again. We can do it with a single camera in a couple of hours. That way we won’t have to take all that time trying to fix it in edit, so it’ll cost you less and you’ll have a much better film.’

‘Er, no’, said the client.

It turned out the footage had been shot by the Director’s PA, using a camera the department had recently bought in a bid to cut costs. Not using the footage would ‘send the wrong message’ about this decision.

‘But the footage is terrible’, I said.

‘It is’, agreed the client.

‘It doesn’t say what you need it to say’, I said.

‘It doesn’t’, agreed the client.

‘You’ll end up with a film that’s not very good,’ I persisted.

‘Yes,’ agreed the client.

‘And it’ll cost you more.’

‘Yes,’ agreed the client.

So I shrugged my shoulders and stopped arguing. You can do an awful lot in edit these days. What you can’t do, of course, is make people say things they didn’t say or refocus a blurry shot. So we made the film: it looked okay and sounded okay, but just didn’t work as well as it could have done. And it cost a bit more to do it badly than it would have cost to do it well.

It got me thinking about how companies sometimes end up making quite perverse decisions in a bid to gain a little bit of advantage.

In this case, the decision-making process had gone something like this:

  1. We’re under pressure to cut costs
  2. Film production is expensive
  3. We can buy our own camera for less than the cost of a day’s filming
  4. Cameras aren’t that hard to use – I’ve got one at home
  5. So we could do our own filming and save money

All of which makes sense – up to a point. The problem is that being able to make a film is not the same thing as being able to make a film that’s interesting.

If you make a film that is not interesting, people will ignore it. Which means you’ll have wasted the money you did spend and you won’t have done your job.

Our client knew that.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t the one making the decision about buying the camera.

The trick is to know the right questions

A few years ago, a man went into a Target supermarket in Minneapolis to complain to the manager, because the store had sent his teenage daughter a personalised leaflet packed with coupons for maternity clothing, nursery furniture, baby clothes and other maternity offers.

‘My daughter’s still in school’, the man said, angrily. ‘What are you trying to do: encourage her to get pregnant?’ The manager apologised profusely for what was clearly a mistake.

A week later, the man spoke to the manager again: this time, to apologise himself. It turned out his daughter had been pregnant, after all – she just hadn’t told him.

So how did Target’s mail-personalisation system know she was pregnant before her own father did? The answer: a statistician named Andrew Pole.

Pole’s job was to analyse customer data, to find patterns that could grow Target’s sales. He realised the most likely time to change customer shopping habits was during lifestyle changes: graduation, moving jobs, moving house, marriage, divorce and, especially, having a baby.

If you can get a pregnant customer to buy their baby goods from you, they’ll buy everything else from you too, because convenience is paramount. But, if you wait till after the baby is born, they’ll be inundated with offers from other stores and you’ll probably lose them.

So the trick is to know they’re pregnant before anyone else does.

Pole analysed the purchasing patterns of thousands of pregnant customers to identify telltale changes: for instance, switching to non-scented soap, buying calcium and zinc supplements and large packs of cotton balls. When customers started showing this behaviour, they’d be sent money-off vouchers for maternity items (just as the man’s daughter had been).

The result was that millions of pregnant women began spending a lot more money in Target. The same thing happened when Pole analysed other lifestyle triggers. By 2010, his analysis had helped to grow Target’s sales by over 50%.

What’s interesting about this is that everybody else had access to the same information Pole had. They all had the answers in front of them.

But he was the only one asking the right questions.

If it feels comfortable, you’re doing it wrong

When clients ask me whether culture change works, I say: imagine you’ve got a living room that’s a bit pokey and dark.

If you knocked the wall through to the dining room, you’d let loads more light in and it would feel bright and airy. But that sounds difficult and expensive. It would cause a lot of disruption.

So, instead, most people decide just to redecorate the living room: new wallpaper, better lights, a brighter carpet, new sofas. It takes a bit of time and costs more than you thought it would, but at least you haven’t had to breathe in any brick-dust or shower at your neighbour’s.

For a while, you feel really good every time you go in the room: you open the door and stand there with a smile on your face.

The only thing taking the gloss off is that some of your friends don’t seem to notice. You say ‘what do you think of the new living room?’ and they say ‘it’s lovely… er, what have you done?’

After a month, the novelty wears off. You stop making your kids take their shoes off before they walk on the carpet. You let the dog sit on the sofa. After six months, you’ve completely forgotten what it was like before you redecorated.

And you’ve still got a nagging feeling that the room is a bit pokey and dark.

That’s what launching a new ‘purpose and values’ in your business is like. It looks nice. It makes you feel good for a while. But, deep down, you’re not really changing anything.

So, before you start doing any of this stuff, the most important question to ask yourself is ‘why?’ Why do you want to change your company’s culture?

Is it because you want to be a better company? Or is it because you just want people to think you’re a better company?

The only way to make a real difference to your culture – to evolve an identity and values that actually mean something to the people who work in your business – is if you’re ready to break down some walls and have some uncomfortable conversations.

Otherwise, all you’re doing is changing the wallpaper.

Get real

Back in the 1980s, when the founders of Innocent Drinks were still in short trousers, there was a massively successful fruit drink brand called Snapple.

Snapple’s popularity was based on its use of natural ingredients and its quirky, homespun brand positioning (‘made from the best stuff on earth’).

In 1994, the brand was bought by Quaker for $1.7bn. They applied all their considerable marketing and manufacturing know-how to turn Snapple into a global leader – and, in the process, they nearly destroyed it. Because they’d completely missed the point.

The point was that people loved Snapple precisely because it wasn’t slick and efficient: it was quirky and charming and authentic. It was an anti-brand. As soon as it became just another big corporate money-maker, they deserted it in droves (former fan Howard Stern, the controversial and influential American DJ, began referring to it as ‘Crapple’ on air).

In 1997, Quaker offloaded Snapple for $300m. They’d spent three years and $1.4bn turning a distinctive and much-loved brand into just another product.

That’s the thing with authenticity. You can’t fake it.

Anita Roddick, the charismatic founder of the Body Shop, was once advised by her legal department to stop using the word ‘activist’, because people might associate it with terrorism. Her response was to use the word as often and as publicly as she could – she even launched a fragrance called Activist. As far as Roddick was concerned, active participation in causes and debate was an essential part of what made Body Shop what it was: she’d rather risk offending people than compromise her principles.

During the first Gulf War, Roddick sponsored an anti-war campaign (which, at the time, was a fairly unpopular position for anyone to adopt, let alone the CEO of a public corporation). She faced strong pressure from investors and her own marketing team, who were worried that her stance would damage public support for the brand.

Roddick opened the issue up to all Body Shop employees in a public debate. Had she lost, she would have stepped down. Fortunately for the business, she didn’t have to. Employees responded to her, because the principles Body Shop stood for mattered as much to them as they did to her.

How many CEOs would have the guts to do something they firmly believed was right, even when it would cost them sales and might cost them their job?

That’s what real authenticity looks like.

Mind your language

When my grandfather first started work, he used to wear a full morning suit and hat. He and his colleagues sat in ordered rows of large school desks, in a cathedral-like silence, broken only by the scratching of pens. There was no room for humour or lightness: work was a serious business.

When they addressed each other, it was done with whispered formality – ‘Mister Smith’ or ‘Miss Jones’. First names were superfluous. Letters would follow prescribed patterns: ‘We are in receipt of your correspondence of the 6th inst.’, ‘In anticipation of your favourable response, we remain etc.’

The office he worked in is still there: an imposing building beside the river in London. People go to work there in jeans now. They sit on communal designer sofas, sipping lattes, having power meetings and firing off emails to their boss that start ‘Hi Liz’ and finish with a smiley face. They update their Twitter feed on the train in and they take their blackberries on holiday, so they can still be part of the conversation while they’re on the beach in Cancun. The divide between work and home is being consciously blurred, to make work feel more like ‘real life’.

But there’s still something not quite real about it.

In between the cheery salutation and the smiley face on the email, they’re still using words like ‘executables’, ‘leveraging’, ‘behaviours’.

They’d never dream of using those words with their friends or families because, deep down, they know they’re nonsense: invented words designed to imbue ordinary ideas with greater significance and urgency, or to avoid uncomfortable truths.

If you use words like that at home, your kids will laugh at you. But, in the office, you can say ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘low-hanging fruit’ and nobody will laugh. In fact, they’ll make a note to include it in the next presentation they write for you.

That’s because your kids will give you feedback your direct reports wouldn’t dare to. They’ll tell you what they really think and they’ll tell you when you sound like a phoney. Which is uncomfortable – and sometimes unfair – but it’s also a lot more real than the environment most people work in.

I’ve spent the last 30 years working with lots of very different organisations all over the world and I’ve noticed that there’s nearly always a strong correlation between the words a business uses and its long-term success.

Big words and complex ideas are a shield people use when they want to skirt around difficult issues. It means you can ‘tackle’ those issues without ever breaking much of a sweat or upsetting anyone (or, in fact, tackling them). Euphemisms are a cover for bad news.

That’s why it’s a good idea to spend a bit of time listening to the conversations going on around you – at desks, in meetings, in the canteen, in the lift.

If the people in your business sound the same at work as they sound in real life, everything’s fine.

If they sound like a management consultancy presentation, you’ve got a problem.

Kill the templates

Art – at least, good art – is all about prompting an emotional response.

It makes bold statements. It disrupts. It invites us to think about issues and ideas. It reminds us what there is in the world to love, loathe, fear and admire.

So it’s probably not surprising that you find very few of those elements in most workplace surroundings. Businesses, on the whole, are uncomfortable with the disruptive and the emotional.

Instead, you’re much more likely to find clean, anaesthetic lines and neutral colours, stock-photography landscapes and motivational platitudes (‘there’s no I in team’, ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’). Nothing challenging. Nothing unexpected. Nothing of much interest at all.

That’s equally true of the communication you find going on inside those businesses. Committee-made messages, couched in ‘safe’ language – and presented with PowerPoint templates that make everything look and feel the same.

Why does this matter?

It matters because of the way our brains work. Our brains process so much information all the time that, if we had to think about it consciously, we wouldn’t be able to function.

So our brains have evolved to be selective. They filter out information that’s familiar and, instead, focus our conscious attention on stuff that’s new and unexpected.

It’s a basic survival instinct: it’s why our ancestors were able to concentrate their brain power on opportunities and threats (that sabre-tooth tiger over there) rather than more humdrum processing tasks (put one foot in front of the other).

What was true on the neolithic savannah is equally true in the office today. Our brains instinctively filter out information that seems familiar or safe (anything that looks like a PowerPoint template, for instance). And they prioritise information that seems new or unexpected.

In fact, whenever a new piece of data is presented in a dramatic or exciting way, it sets off a little blast of dopamine in the brain – and that dopamine acts like a mental post-it note, making it easier for us to access and remember the information in future.

That’s why we notice great art. Ideas that are expressed in a creative or exciting way will always be able to cut through.

It’s also why following a prescribed, familiar format for ‘telling people stuff’ is a total waste of time.

If you want people to notice and remember the things you’re saying, the first thing you need to do is ditch the templates.

Hole in the wall thinking

In 1999, an Indian academic made a fascinating discovery by knocking a hole in the back wall of his office.

Sugata Mitra was a professor of educational technology. His research centre in New Delhi happened to be located right next to one of the city’s biggest slums.

At the time, very few children in India had access to computers. Those that did tended to live in the privileged suburbs – and certainly not in the shanty-towns beside Dr Mitra’s office.

He became used to hearing well-to-do friends boasting about how quickly their children were becoming tech-literate. And, since he knew natural intelligence could not reasonably be the sole preserve of the rich, Dr Mitra decided to try something a little unusual.

He cut a hole in the wall of the research centre and placed a freely accessible working computer there for the local children to use. No training, no instructions: just a wired-up PC with an internet connection.

What happened next was very interesting. Once they realized the computer was there – and they weren’t going to get into trouble for using it – the children quickly began playing with it.

Now, keep in mind that this was 1999 and a very poor area of Delhi. Most of these kids had never seen a computer before, let alone used one. They had little formal education and very limited English, but what they did have was an instinctive curiosity and a willingness to try new things.

With no outside help or interference, they quickly taught themselves how to use the computer, surf the internet and find information. They even taught themselves enough English to use email, chatrooms and search engines. The result? Their school scores shot up, especially in maths and science, and they were soon able to answer exam questions several years ahead of their age group.

The social consequences were even more intriguing. As well as their significant academic advances, the children became more confident about forming and expressing their own opinions and more adept at detecting bogus claims or propaganda. All the benefits, in other words, that you would hope to see in a better-educated population. And they’d done it all themselves.

Dr Mitra’s experiment won the 2013 TED prize and has spawned a new approach to learning in many parts of the developing world.

The idea is to create an environment where children teach themselves by working together at computer terminals, while the teacher’s role becomes more about supervision and facilitation.

In other words: ask the right questions, provide the right tools, then get out of the way and let them get on with it.

Doesn’t that sound like an approach a lot of businesses could learn from?

Harnessing the power of the herd

A long time ago, our evolutionary system made an important choice. It chose to grow our brains. This is how we came to be the dominant species on the planet.

There was a trade-off, though. Having bigger brains meant we also had bigger heads – and bigger heads pose a significant reproductive problem for a species with narrow hip-bones.

The only way to get round this problem was to shortcut the reproductive process, by having our babies delivered before they were equipped to fend for themselves (unlike the baby giraffes and gazelles you see in wildlife programmes, who can run from the moment they’re born).

That’s why human beings are instinctively social animals – because, from our first breath, we depend on the group to look after us.

By the time we reach 18 months old (which might be a more appropriate gestation period), we’re equipped to survive on our own. But we don’t. Most of us continue to live as part of a group for the rest of our lives.

It’s a pattern you only find repeated in our closest animal cousins: apes and chimpanzees. They also form into groups for protection, with very clear hierarchies. There are the alpha males, those who are permitted to groom the alpha males and those who groom the groomers and each other. The grooming is an essential part of establishing each member’s place and their commitment to the group.

Human beings operate in the same way. The difference is that our bigger brains have allowed us to evolve more sophisticated forms of grooming than our simian cousins. Instead of picking nits out of each other’s fur, we establish our place and our commitment to the group through our ability to communicate.

And because language is a more time-efficient form of grooming than nit-picking, it means our social groups can be much larger than the average group of chimpanzees.

They can also be more varied. Most of us operate as part of different groups – family, friends, work, community, club – which can change in make-up and location as our lives evolve. These groups inform the way we think and the choices they make. We do what people like us do.

When there’s a discrepancy between the norms of the different groups we belong to – friends and work, for instance – that can make life confusing and unsettling for us. It makes it hard to decide what we ought to think and what we ought to do.

Which is why organisations that make it simpler – by allowing people to act and think in the same way they would with their friends or family – are the ones that tend to succeed.

You can give people all the rational reasons in the world why they should do something.

But the truth is that they’re much more likely to be swayed by what their friends think.

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)