The exciting mission and purpose need to be balanced against the dull stuff – and good planning is essential
Are you excited by your working life? Does every problem
seem like a solution waiting to happen? Do you spend most of the day in a state
of feverish anticipation about the next curveball that the world is going to
sling at you?
If the answer is “no, not often” then you have much in
common with 99.9% of people in organisations around the world: however much your
organisation has a great cause, a compelling purpose, whizzy products and funky
offices with great coffee on tap and a pinball machine in the basement, you
have to spend a large chunk of your day doing stuff that’s – when all’s said
and done – pretty boring.
In a large business the stuff that we might find a bit dull
can be allocated to people who don’t find it so: that’s why we have Finance, HR,
Procurement and so on. If you’re lucky, those departments will be full of
people who can eat a purchase ledger for breakfast without batting an eyelid
and will be happy to do so day in, day out.
I was in conversation with a fellow consultant recently where
she described her horrendous experience returning a sofa she had bought. You’d
think this would be a straightforward exercise – these days I find it’s straightforward
to return unworn or undamaged products to suppliers and get a refund – but not
so. In this case the sofa had been covered with a fabric that, after a few
weeks, had stretched significantly, making the whole thing look worn and unattractive.
My friend’s initial attempt to sort out a return was
rebuffed but she was undeterred and sought out help from a fabric expert, who
confirmed that the fabric used was too stretchy and therefore unsuitable for
use as a sofa covering, and a lawyer friend who obliged her with a suitably
We tend to think of plans as precise specifications like compositions, but writing for jazz musicians is a better analogy
I specialise in creating robust, implementable strategies
and plans for organisations going through times of change. Somewhere along the
line a plan gets delivered, whether it’s me writing it or my clients, but I
think there’s a bit of a misconception about the role of plans and to me it’s
best explained with an analogy.
We have a tendency to think of a plan as a precise
specification of what will happen, a bit like a musical composition. In western
classical music – at least for last 400 years or so – it’s been written down
precisely so that the musicians play exactly what the composer intended.
In this video I discuss how saying no can aid you in your business planning and your personal productivity by providing an opportunity to focus and prioritise. I also share two simple techniques to help you have more productive planning conversations.
Many years ago, I was on one of the least fulfilling
consulting projects I have ever carried out. It had all the hallmarks of
success – prestige international client, great colleagues, working in London
and New York – but the only problem was that the director who’d hired us didn’t
seem to know what problem we were there to solve. It wasn’t all bad, as the
client team were an interesting bunch: highly motivated, very hard-working… and
as cynical as they come. One remark has stuck with me through the decades:
referring to a member of the client organisation who was seen as making a
potentially useful contribution to the project one of the team referred to him
as “a bit of a visionary”. However, the way she said this – the
particular tone of her voice – suggested that his contribution would be far
So, what’s the problem with visions and visionaries – and
are they any use when we are increasingly concerned with an organisation’s purpose?
When I talk about vision, mission and purpose in strategy courses and
workshops, I do a quick quiz as an icebreaker, using a slide with the following
three people on it:
I ask people to name them and tell me which one is the odd
one out. People usually guess the two chaps on the left and right – Steve Jobs
and Elon Musk – but have a bit more difficulty with the central character,
possibly as she wasn’t responsible for a prestige tech brand. It’s Hildegard of
Bingen, the 12th Century German Benedictine abbess, writer,
composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She’s the odd
one out, not just because she is female, but because she was the only one
amongst the three to have actual visions.
Now I’m not saying that this makes Hildegard more or less of
a visionary than the other two – even if some people have attributed her
visions to temporal lobe epilepsy or migraine – but I bring her in to the
conversation to make the point that there is a bit of a problem with visions
and visionaries. The fact that I have cited three high achievers who have made
significant advances in their chosen fields means that “being a visionary” – my
former client colleague notwithstanding – or having a vision is seen as
something “out there” and exceptional; something not for normal people.
I contend that this is nonsense.
Having and articulating a vision is something we should
all do, whether it’s for our companies, our neighbourhoods, our families or
ourselves. And developing it is fairly straightforward: you simply complete the
“A world where…”
“World” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean the whole
world, it could be the world of your company, division, family or just you.
To give you a concrete example close to me, I work with a music education charity, World Heart Beat, whose vision includes
where music, as a universal form of communication, bridges cultural, political,
economic and linguistic barriers”.
What I like about this vision is that, whilst it could be
some distant future world, it’s quite possible to realise it on a local scale,
i.e. in the parts of London that the charity operates in – and indeed it
translates this vision into the way its courses, concerts and other events are
So, a vision can be both far away and present at the same
time: in fact, if it’s a dream – as Martin Luther King so powerfully articulated
– or a state that may seem distant when compared to the present, it’s actually
more useful than one which too strongly implies a destination.
A lot of vision statements I have seen make the mistake of extending
what the person or the company currently does into a more ambitious version of
themselves. So a vision statement like:
“providing high quality solutions for the supply chain
isn’t a vision statement. Instead, envisioning
“a world where supply chains are friction-free, enabling clients
to optimise their manufacturing and distribution schedules to deliver more
cost-effective solutions to their customers”
would, I think, be a bit more ambitious and, moreover, emphasise
the benefit of such a world.
Not just for trekkies
Vision statements that include a destination are basically
mission statements, perhaps most famously (if you spent too much time in your
youth watching science fiction on TV) in the mission of the Starship Enterprise. A
mission has some sort of objective and, like a vision, needs to be powerful to
motivate the team(s) involved in delivering it. The vision may be delivered by implementing
the mission but actually the most powerful visions are those that don’t define
a specific destination.
What’s the purpose of purpose?
The emphasis on purpose to provide a focus for the
organisation might be seen as removing the need for mission and vision
statements. I’d argue that the opposite is true: a definition of the
organisation’s purpose – the
why as Simon Sinek refers to it – is best arrived at when you have a
vision to accompany it (and a mission to deliver it).
To craft a purpose statement is simple but requires deep
thought and discussion to get there. A sentence with the structure:
To [contribution] so that [outcome]
is all you need but agreeing the contribution (the timeless
value-adding work you do) and the outcome (the benefit for your customers) is a
In my strategy and planning workshops I spend time on all
three, spending most time on the one that’s insufficiently well-defined, as it
teases out the motivators and the direction to create alignment before we get into
the things that need to change and their relative priority. Vision is often the
most powerful element of that conversation, as people share their real feelings
about the business, what it contributes (beyond a healthy balance sheet) and
how they see themselves in it.
The vision thing is still necessary and, in what appears to
be an increasingly fractious world, I’d argue that we need powerful, ambitious
visions more than ever.
If you’re in need of an aide memoire to help structure your business planning process I’m delighted to offer a simple one page guide.
Why one page? Well, planning can be a complex process once you start to consider all the various factors that need to be taken into consideration so it’s best to start simple.
I’ve condensed my experience of change management, strategy and planning into seven steps and the key questions you should ask at each step. These should be taken as the starting point from the key stakeholders that you need to involve.
In a sea of endless possibility, discover the power of
not doing something
A while ago a business associate and I were discussing a
joint venture we had planned to do. Reviewing our various activities over the
coming months we decided there was no way we were going to be able to do what
we’d talked about until next year, so we said a decisive “no” to doing it now.
And it felt liberating.
Modern business culture rightly encourages positivity, but the
unintended consequences can make you feel overloaded. Selective use of
negativity can have a positive effect. Here’s how…
The power of yes
Early on in my consulting career I worked with a colleague
who had a background in sales training. My relationship with our client was not
as good as it could be, and she offered me perhaps the simplest and best consulting
advice I’ve ever had. I’d come from a technical and analytic background where
options tended to be carefully weighed against agreed criteria and recommendations
made. As a result, my answers to client questions in the early stage of their transformation
project were of the “it depends” variety. My colleague realised this wasn’t
helping them get started on a big change, so she sat me down and said
“When a client asks you if we can do something, what’s your
Before I could come out with “it depends” she produced a sheet of A4 paper with one word on it in large font:
“The answer is always yes” she said “even if you can think of
a thousand reasons why it’s not possible. The client wants help. They want to
know what’s possible, so entertain the possibility before dismissing it
or even trying to evaluate it.”
It’s a classic sales technique, of course: agree that you
can provide what the customer wants even if you can’t figure out how to provide
it. It works equally well in change and transformation projects, where people
need to try out a new idea to see if it could work. As a consultant part of
your role is to help envision this new world not dismiss it out of hand.
The Yes/No Interlude*
Saying Yes to everything is a life and work strategy that
means you embrace possibilities and adopt a more positive mindset. But it has
its downsides: if everything is possible, then what do you do?
I encounter this all the time with clients I work with,
particularly smaller non-profit organisations who invariably have resource or
budget challenges that mean that the list of things they would like to do
starts to seem un-doable. My lesson from many years ago means that I don’t tell
people what they can’t do but I do work through a process that helps them focus
on what must be done now, what could be done given budget (and a plan to get it)
and what doesn’t really need to be done.
I find that once people say no – or not-yet – to a few
things on the seemingly impossible to-do list, the forward plan becomes more
Embrace the nay-sayer
Any change initiative or ambitious plan will usually flush
out the “nay-sayers” in the organisation, those people for whom every silver
lining has a cloud, and the fashion for positive thinking means that their views
can often get discounted. I have had a lot of experience with IT departments
over the years and that’s where a lot of perceived negativity comes from,
usually in the form of too-long development timescales or too-high budgets. In
these cases, there is a disconnect between the ambition stated by the person
who had the idea and the nay-sayers view of reality. I think change efforts
need to have nay-sayers on the team to temper any over-optimism but also, when
they do come on board, either through compromise or coming round to the
argument, they become rock-solid advocates for change.
A couple of questions to see if you’re embracing the power
of Yes and No:
When faced with a colleague who proposes a
radical or different way of looking at things, is your instinctive answer “yes
we can” or “no we can’t”?
Have you tested out your big idea with a
From the overwhelming list of possibilities,
what’s really important, and what’s really important now.
There’s no hard and fast answer to these questions, but
addressing them means your change plans are much more likely to succeed.
* If you can remember this then, like me, you spent too
much of your childhood watching TV or
you and I have similar taste in music
A distant reminder of Candid Camera is nothing to smile about
As a TV-obsessed tot in the 1960s, one of my favourite programmes was Candid Camera. With its procession of pranks on unsuspecting members of the public filmed by hidden cameras it provided some guaranteed laughs and played to this child’s sense of mischief. One episode that’s stuck in my mind – for some reason – consisted of someone pretending to be Swedish and asking people where he could “buy a gorm” as he’d been told by his girlfriend that he was “gormless”. It was probably one of the least funny pranks – particularly over fifty years on where making fun of someone’s linguistic challenges isn’t exactly PC – but, probably because I liked the word, I have always wondered what it would be to have one or more “gorms”.
The other day I was having a Sunday lunch in a pub in Malmesbury
in Wiltshire. It does great food, but the experience was slightly marred by
slow service. Two waitresses were working the small dining room: one was rushing
around providing a great, personable service but the other, who gave the
impression of being new to the job, was hanging around looking like she didn’t
know what to do and had to be encouraged to take our order. The conclusion we reached
was that she was a bit, well, gormless.
This seemed so apt that I thought I should try and unpick
what it actually meant. A quick Google search was quite revealing:
“gorm” derives from the Old Norse gaumr meaning care or heed, and it found
its way into English as gaumless, spelt as gormless from the mid-18th
Century. (Clearly the Candid Camera team were more erudite with their hapless
Swede than might have been thought.) It means “lacking sense or initiative”.
What a great word to use in customer service!
Yes, consider gorms to be a measure of the amount of initiative you take with your customers. On an arbitrary five-gorm scale our Wiltshire waitress was on about one gorm; her partner was – when she wasn’t rushing about looking after the other customers – on about four gorms.
You’ve probably realised by now that I have just found another
word to describe customer care – or the absence of it – but think about it: how
often do you encounter service that is a bit gormless. It’s not just
people: my wife has struggled for weeks with a bank renowned for its customer
service when the combination of an app reset and a broken process for providing
her with the right codes for password renewal meant that she couldn’t access
her account other than by telephone. Collectively gormless, despite the usual
pleasant experience talking to their advisers.
It’s a service truism that you have to recruit for attitude
and train for skill – so you can argue that avoiding gormless customer service
is just a matter of recruiting people who aren’t themselves gormless and who
show the potential to be able to take the initiative. But the deeper question
is to ask what processes, beliefs and attitudes in your organisation actively
discourage initiative-taking and doing the right thing for customers. In other
A non-toxic theatre visit ticks all the right boxes
If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to a popular West End
show – and in my case even luckier to get one fairly cheaply (thanks to TodayTix) – your elation can be
followed by a sudden lowering of expectations: the venue will be crowded and
the business of getting to your seat can be a major stress point.
If your companion has mobility challenges, this stress can
be compounded, but a visit to the Old Vic last week proved to be a pleasant
surprise. I’d been warned that there was construction work going on at the
theatre, so my expectations of easy access were even lower than normal, but
here’s the pleasant surprise: plenty of people on hand to help. Having
been directed to the other side of the theatre to some temporary outside loos –
the works on the building seem to limit internal access at the moment – we
encountered an incredibly helpful member of the front-of-house team who
insisted on showing us to our seats at the back of the stalls just to make sure
they could be accessed.
The play – A Very
Expensive Poison – was excellent. However, the point of this is not to
recount a very enjoyable (also inexpensive and non-toxic) evening but to
reflect on why such experiences are still relatively rare. Many West End
theatres – and other businesses in central London – face structural problems, namely
old-fashioned pokey buildings, high rents and therefore ticket prices, and
these can mitigate against a good customer experience. However, this means that
businesses should invest in the relatively inexpensive assets that can turn an
enjoyable theatre visit into a memorable one: namely the people customers encounter
during the visit.
What’s frustrating is that there is nothing new or rocket-science
about any of this: you simply recruit people who want to serve customers well
and train them to make sure they have the necessary skills and knowledge to do
so. Staff at the Old Vic were all pleasant and friendly but that’s still a
rarity: it’s not that people are openly hostile, but too often I encounter
indifferent service staff who are “going through the motions” rather than
recognising it’s their job to make their customers feel better, however
fleeting that interaction might be.
Organisations – in the arts sector and beyond – that recognise
the central importance of this stand a greater chance of repeat business (I’m
looking forward to my next Old Vic visit) and the financial success that comes