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.

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.

 

 

Why change is so hard

Upton Sinclair was an American poet and political activist, who ran for the Governorship of California in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression.

His campaign slogan was ‘End poverty in California’ – EPIC, for short. His policies were radical, socialist solutions, based on collective work and shared food resources.

At the time, California was full of extremely poor people, with no jobs, no money and very little food – so Sinclair’s ideas generated plenty of interest and support.

But, when it came to the crunch, voters rejected him in favour of a more mainstream candidate with more familiar policies. They just couldn’t get their heads around the idea of such radical change.

As Sinclair himself put it, ‘it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’

I thought about that this morning, as I was picking my way through the tent village erected by Extinction Rebellion activists at the bottom of Trafalgar Square.

The ‘rebels’ I encountered were, broadly, likeable and articulate people.

Their demands seem reasonable: tell the truth about climate change and set up a citizens’ assembly to take the lead on what we should do about it.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with their cause. The science is compelling and the clock is ticking. Nobody really wants the planet to be irretrievably damaged, or their grandchildren to have to travel to Mars to create a habitable environment.

So why are we not all pitching tents alongside them?

I don’t have a good answer for that. But I suspect it’s a combination of self-interest (my salary depends on the status quo), fear of radical change (I don’t trust well-meaning hippies to come up with a better social system) and the nagging suspicion that none of it will make any difference until the people at the top of the world’s big economies adopt these ideas as their own.

Which is, of course, what stops change working in most businesses.

Even when confronted with the burningest of burning platforms, most of us will still wait for a signal from the people in charge before we jump.

In other words, the single most important factor in making change happen is credible leadership.

The voters of California decided that Upton Sinclair didn’t have it.

But, when Franklin Roosevelt adopted a lot of Sinclair’s ideas into his New Deal, he had the power and credibility of the Presidential office (as well as a Congressional majority) to back him up.

The question for Extinction Rebellion – and all of us – is: where will that credible leadership come from today?

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…)

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.

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…)

On me ‘ead, son

I’ve never been that bothered about football.

But this article by BBC journalist Guillem Balague about Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa is a fascinating case study in how to go about building a winning culture.

The jury’s still out on whether it will work – at time of writing, Leeds are second in the Championship.

But, if you want to inject some high performance thinking into your organisation, there’s a lot of food for thought right here

 

Start with your employees and the rest will follow

Herb Kelleher, who died this month, is widely regarded as one of the greatest CEOs America has ever seen.

Which is odd, because he never set out to run a business at all. He started his working life as a lawyer in New Jersey, before moving to Texas. It was while having dinner one night with a client in San Antonio that the two began discussing an idea for an airline that would help people travel more easily around the vast State.

The business that grew out of this conversation, Southwest Airlines, became the template for every budget airline that followed – as well as a shining example of what you can achieve with a business if you start by thinking about the people who work in it.

Kelleher’s genius was for making things simple and creating a culture where people took themselves lightly, but their jobs seriously.

When recruiting new pilots, he once brought all the prospective candidates together in a hangar on a warm day – and then turned the air conditioning off. An employee came out, apologised for the heat and offered shorts to anyone who wanted them. Some accepted but most, worried about not looking business-like enough, stayed in their shirts, ties and long trousers.

Only the candidates who took the shorts were offered a job. Kelleher wanted people who would be driven by common sense, not protocol – and flexible enough to adapt to unexpected conditions.

Naturally gregarious and charismatic, he once publicly arm-wrestled a rival for the right to use a disputed slogan (he lost, but with such good grace that he was still allowed to use it).

Above all, Kelleher had a gift for inspiring loyalty and dedication from his employees, because they knew with absolute certainty that they were his first priority.

As he once put it:

‘If you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back – and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with your employees and everything else follows from that.’

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…)

 

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.

 

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.