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.

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.

Is this the world’s most valuable picture?

Yesterday was the 214th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, arguably the most important naval engagement in British history.

The night before the battle, Admiral Nelson invited his captains on board his flagship, HMS Victory, for dinner.

As the main course was being cleared away, he gathered them all round to outline his battle plan, which he sketched out with the few quick strokes of his pen that you see here.

The sketch was designed to illustrate a simple, but incredibly important point.

Instead of sailing in a line parallel with the Franco-Spanish fleet and simply pounding away in an exchange of gunfire (the orthodox naval tactics of the time), Nelson wanted his ships to sail straight at the enemy, break their line and engage them at close quarters.

It was risky, but it was also the only way to achieve a decisive victory. Sticking to the rule-book would be unlikely to give either fleet much of an advantage. Whereas getting in close would allow the superior seamanship and gunnery of the British crews to come into their own.

The stakes were high: if Nelson failed, the one obstacle preventing a French invasion of Britain would be removed. On the other hand, a decisive victory would give the British naval supremacy (in those days, as significant an advantage as air supremacy is in today’s conflicts).

Success depended on his captains understanding what they had to do and executing it perfectly.

Nelson knew that the best way to explain it was to draw it. If he’d just used words, his officers would have heard him, but might have assumed that they’d misunderstood, because what he was saying was unusual.

Whereas, when they saw the picture, his captains got it immediately. They followed the plan and it worked: the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was comprehensively routed.

Britain had established a dominance of the seas that would last for the next hundred years and make her the richest, most powerful nation on earth.

It’s an object lesson in the value of being able to explain an idea visually.

At the height of its Empire, in 1860, Britain accounted for a staggering 47% of all global trade. (To put that in context, today’s most dominant trading nation, China, accounts for around 17%).

Britain’s trading dominance was only possible because of the Royal Navy’s absolute control of the seas.

Which, in turn, was only possible because of Nelson’s visionary sketch.

Which makes that sketch worth around 50 trillion dollars in today’s money.

Eat your heart out, Damien Hurst.

 

 

You have to give people a reason to care

If you go in the men’s bathrooms at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (and I realise some of you never will, so I’ve attached a pic), you’ll notice there’s a fly hand-painted on the ceramic of every urinal.

The flies are there because airport bosses had become concerned about the amount of time and money being spent on cleaning round the urinals.

It turned out male passengers were too distracted or in too much of a hurry to pay attention to their aim. Over time, these little spillages added up to a sizeable cleaning bill and a fairly unpleasant experience for travellers.

The airport’s facilities team tried a number of different ways to encourage urinal-users to be more fastidious: from polite cajoling to threatening notices to spot fines. Nothing seemed to make any difference.

Then some bright spark came up with the idea of the flies.

Men are instinctively competitive creatures, they suggested. You can keep giving them rational reasons to improve their aim and they’ll just keep tuning them out. Whereas, if you give them a target to aim at, they won’t want to miss.

The bright spark was right.

Accuracy in the trial urinal areas improved dramatically. Cleaning costs fell like a stone. And, since the painted flies have been rolled out to the rest of the airport, savings now run into many millions of Euros.

It’s a good example of the ‘nudge’ theory in action.  It’s also an example worth bearing in mind next time someone asks you to run a ‘serious’ communication campaign.

Because the best way of getting people to change their behaviour is not to keep banging on at them with rational arguments that they’re not interested in.

It’s to reframe the problem in a way that makes them want to engage with it.

When gestures trump words

Whatever else you may think of Donald Trump (and, let’s face it, even by his standards, he’s had a bizarre couple of weeks), it’s hard to deny that he’s an effective communicator. A large part of that is to do with the way he uses his hands.

The BBC made a short film about it when he first won the Presidency, which you can still find online.

The key point is the way he uses big, vague, airy movements, to characterise his opponents’ policies – then follows up with very precise, focused gestures to characterise his own. ‘Chaos’ versus ‘clarity’.

What’s interesting is that, even though a lot of what he’s saying doesn’t stand up to robust intellectual scrutiny, it doesn’t matter – because most of the audience is more influenced by his hands than by his words. His gestures make people believe him.

‘Wow’, they think. ‘This guy really knows how to cut through the bullshit and make stuff happen.’

Now, I’m not suggesting Trump is a leadership model you should copy. But I do think there’s an important lesson in this for all of us – and last month’s Harvard Business Review includes an interesting piece of research to back it up.

Joep Cornelissen is a Professor of Communication at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

He and his team contacted a large number of established investors and, posing as entrepreneurs, asked if they could send a video pitching a new piece of medical tech.

They sent out four different versions of the video, all featuring the same ‘entrepreneur’ (actually a Dutch actor).

Version one used a lot of figurative language to describe the new invention.

Version two included regular hand motions to help explain the idea.

Version three used both.

Version four used neither.

The results were striking: investors who watched version two of the video were 12% more likely to invest than any of the other groups. In other words, when you’re pitching an idea, gestures matter a lot more than what you say.

This was not what Cornelissen and his team had been expecting. Given the widespread reliance on analogies and storytelling when pitching ideas, they’d assumed use of language would be key.

In fact, the investors said they had a much more tangible sense of what the product was, and how it would work, when they saw the hand gestures. It reassured them, in the same way Trump’s audience is reassured by his repeated ‘wave and pinch’ gesturing.

The trick, it seems, is to use gestures selectively. Not just waving your hands all the time, but finding one or two killer gestures that lend weight and conviction to your key points.

Of course, it’s also important to remember who your audience is – and what they’re likely to be focused on.

When Cornelissen repeated the experiment with his students, he found they were much more likely to be swayed by the figurative language, because their primary interest was to understand the idea. Whereas investors are more interested in understanding the person pitching it: Do I believe them? Am I confident they can deliver?

A point worth keeping in mind for any CEO with a change agenda they need to engage their business with.

Never trust anyone without a sense of humour

There’s nothing wrong with being professional, but it’s a good rule to be wary of people who take themselves too seriously.

A sense of humour is just common sense with the volume turned up. That’s why comedians are so good at capturing and expressing simple, timeless, human truths.

Dull, serious people, by contrast, tend to see the world in black-and-white terms. They’re not usually good at grasping alternative viewpoints or engaging with new ideas. You should be especially wary of any leader who won’t poke fun at themselves, because it’s a sign either of insecurity or of a narcissistic personality disorder.

As Eric Sykes put it: ’We are all idiots. The ones who don’t think they’re idiots – they’re the ones who are dangerous.’

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Trust is a 360-degree thing

There’s a tendency to think of trust in up-down terms. And it’s obviously good if the people in a business know they can trust their employers. But a winning culture is one where everyone in a team knows they can trust everyone else in the team: their leaders, their peers, the people they manage.

If you don’t know the person next to you has got your back, you waste a lot of time and energy looking over your shoulder. Which is why it’s good to create an environment where no-one has to do that.

Where people can work from home without worrying that their colleagues think they’re building a new patio.

Where no-one takes credit for somebody else’s work.

Where people can express an honest opinion in a respectful way without worrying that it will impact their career prospects.

It’s surprisingly hard to build an environment like this. But, if you manage it, the benefits are extraordinary.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Information doesn’t filter up very well

There’s an old army story about an officer on the front line who needs to get an important message to his commanders:

‘Send reinforcements; I’m going to advance.’

But the telephone lines have been cut, so the only way to get the message through is to pass it up the line. By the time it gets to headquarters, the urgent message has become:

‘Send three and fourpence; I’m going to a dance.’

It’s almost certainly an apocryphal story, but it makes an important point: the more people a message goes through, the further it’s likely to stray from its real meaning.

Which is why you need to keep the lines of communication from your front-line employees as short as possible. They’re usually best-placed to know what your customers think and how proposed changes will work in reality.

But, if their feedback has to pass through too many layers before it reaches a decision-maker, a lot of its value and meaning will be lost (especially if any of those layers don’t like what it’s saying).

Your job is to make sure the right information flows up as easily as it flows down.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Don’t just listen to the bits you want to hear

In the middle ages, kings used to keep a jester (or ‘fool’) to entertain the court. An unofficial, but essential, part of the fool’s role was to offer contradictory opinions.

Not something many of the king’s courtiers would be brave enough to do, since criticism of an absolute monarch was a quick way to lose your head.

But it didn’t matter so much if the fool said it, because the opinion wouldn’t feel like a threat. It could be laughed off as nonsense – and, if it struck a chord, the king could simply adopt it as his own without any loss of face.

The same principle holds true in any business. The higher up an organisation you go, the more important it is to have someone around you who won’t hesitate to speak truth to power.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)