Does your organisation “do boring?”

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.

But a lot of us don’t work in large businesses. I’m increasingly working with smaller organisations in the arts and non-profit sectors and I find that two conflicting factors are at play:

1) The core of what these organisations do is very exciting

Running an arts centre, delivering services to people in need, finding a cure for cancer or helping young people develop – whatever non-profit organisations do they are almost always inspired by a greater sense of purpose than most for-profit organisations. People join them because of that purpose and permeates the whole organisation meaning people turn up to work every day fired up to deliver it. But the counterpoint to this is that…

2) The “boring stuff” can get left behind

There’s a whole bunch of things that are necessary to run even the most purpose-driven non-profit, for example

  • Accounts have to be kept in order to ensure financial viability
  • Policies and procedures have to be in place to do all kinds of things including financial viability, enabling diversity, protecting vulnerable children and adults
  • People have to be hired, developed, rewarded and let go with fairness and due process
  • and so on and so on…

The list, whilst not endless, is typically longer and more apparently complex than the list of things that inform an organisation’s purpose, so it carries the additional burden of appearing to outweigh the stuff that the organisation exists to do.

Larger non-profits get around this by having separate departments that do this – just like larger commercial organisations. Smaller non-profits often don’t have the scale to be able to this and, as they will have grown from tiny start-up organisations comprising a handful of founders, they will have been used to minimising the routine background tasks but doing it themselves.

Once the organisation grows, this isn’t sustainable: there just aren’t enough hours in the day to keep on top of the admin tasks and founders can have difficulty delivering the admin correctly as well as the mission.

The kids weren’t alright

If left unchecked this kind of thing can have serious consequences. The demise of the children’s support charity Kids’ Company in 1995 had a number of contributing factors but the major issue seems to have been an imbalance between the drive to fulfil its mission of supporting vulnerable children and ensuring the proper processes and safeguards were in place to support the growth the charity was going through. In this case, these did not appear to have the

The boring board

Trustees have a critical role to play in ensuring that the boring stuff gets attended to – they’re there to ensure the viability of the organisation so, whilst it’s vital that trustees share the mission and values of the organisation it helps if they can bring specialist expertise such as a background in finance, HR or other business support areas, as well as other useful attributes like an address book full of potential donors (well, I guess we can dream…).

Whilst the founders have the vision for the exciting stuff that the organisation will do, the “boring board” ensures that this drive doesn’t happen without compromising the stability and reputation of the organisation.

Planning for success, commercially

Having a sound business plan is where all this comes together and, as you may have realised, the disciplines that are successfully applied in commercial organisations – finance, HR, risk and so on – are just as important in non-profit organisations. (In fact, the term non-profit is slightly misleading: all organisations need to have a positive balance sheet, whether they have paying customers or non-paying “service users” – often they will have a mix of the two.)

The business plan sets out how the organisation will grow and develop over a timeframe typically between 12 and 36 months and aligns its development goals with the financial and organisational changes that support them.

The tools you need to develop this plan whether for or not for profit are the same and I have condensed my quarter-century of experience in this area into a simple one-page guide that helps you deliver a sound plan that will put your organisation on a sound footing – keeping its vision and purpose alive whilst putting in the structures and processes that will keep it growing.

Growth – that’s what makes the boring stuff really quite exciting.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Customer experience is hard – because it’s not just about the customer

It’s an end-to-end problem – and an opportunity

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 stiff letter.

The supplier caved at this point and duly accepted the return – although not without charging her for picking it up – so yet another tale of customer woe closes.

Another tale of woe

Since I’m not in the market for a new sofa at the moment I forgot to ask who the supplier was, but this story clearly has the potential to impact other sofa-buyers’ decision-making and if the supplier had dared ask my friend if she’d recommend them to friends and family the impact on their Net Promoter Score would be clear!

But that’s not the point: as we discussed further, we realised there are many decisions taken by suppliers of goods and services that are nothing to do with the customer.

Let’s imagine some of the decisions that the sofa supplier might have considered throughout the whole lifecycle from development through to delivery and some possible underlying assumptions:

Decision Underlying assumption
Product design: let’s choose
fabrics that look great
Appearance is more important than
Sales/marketing: we want people to buy a lot of our products People renew their sofas regularly
(sustainability is not important)
Customer service: don’t accept returns that are wornWe don’t care about customers once they have bought our product
Customer service: charge for returns Minimise costs across the supply chain

Of those decisions, only the second two are customer-related but the first two are much more important as they address some fundamental decisions about the business. In practice they are two of a great many decisions about suppliers, costs, design, marketing and sales, that are made where the customer experience doesn’t get a look-in.

That’s why, despite the “obvious” benefits of organising a business around customers, so few businesses are genuinely customer-focused as this requires putting the customer front and centre of all decision-making.


When you get to the fundamental assumptions about the business – something I do when I work with clients on strategy – you may find things that are much more difficult to change than, say, complaints or returns policy.

Let’s take the second assumption above: we live in a society that is quite comfortable with renewing clothing, furnishing and other goods on a regular basis often long before the end of their useful life. Although this behaviour is coming under challenge with society’s increased focus and concern about the environmental impact of consumerism, at a business level it takes a certain courage to decide to make fewer, longer-lasting products when your current competitors are churning out great-looking products at a lower price point.

I find that dealing with assumptions and underlying business principles coupled with a focus on the real outcomes that organisations deliver for customers forms the basis of real, change and business strategies that are driven by the customer. Customer experience leads should be involved at this stage and should also develop their own ability to challenge underlying assumptions that decision-makers hold.

Thanks to Nanette Young for the sofa story

Picture credits: image by 水 陆 from Pixabay 

The power of messing things up

To focus your project, add a To-Not-Do list to your to-do list

There’s an exercise that’s both entertaining and useful when setting up and planning a new project or business venture: thinking of all the ways you could make it fail.

Sample ideas, admittedly not that hilarious

Here’s how it works: in a planning process, once you have alignment on the goals of the initiative that you’re developing, it’s time to transition into planning delivery. I find teams can get a bit stuck at this point, so it’s a good idea to flip the idea of planning on its head. Ask how you could really screw this thing up then throw some ideas around and write them down. Unless your team’s had a collective humour bypass you’ll find this pretty hilarious.

Sample implementation principles act as a guide to successful implementation

Before it gets too out of hand though, stop and review. Flip the list around so all those screw-ups become positive actions. What you then have is a powerful list of principles to adhere to during the implementation phase.

Make it personal

I’ve started to use this approach on projects I’m running, even if they just involve me. I spend a few minutes jotting down a few ways in which I could fail to deliver. I call it the result my To-Not-Do List and I use it, unaltered, as a check against any bad habits that I might fall into unawares.

Stop laughing

Amidst the hilarity that a group session might foster when creating their own To-Not-Do List there’s a sobering realisation. A lot of the screw-ups that are identified are things that the organisation is doing now. The fact that the negatives usually flow so easily in this kind of a discussion is that they are bad habits that are often ingrained and indeed tolerated in the organisation.

The To-Not-Do List offers a sharp corrective to a team that may find it starts out with great purpose and ambition but then enters a state of drift, where deadlines are missed, and the required change doesn’t happen. High-performing change teams have to model the required behaviour in the new organisation that they are building and having a robust and candid discussion about the To-Not-Do List can help immensely.

To find out how Open Chord can help you plan and execute change effectively, please get in touch.

Featured image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay 

Why business planning is like jazz

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.

Bach to the future

Take a piece of Bach: if I were to play it as written it would sound pretty good – the arrangement of the notes, the harmony and the counterpoint are all designed to sound great if played exactly as written. I could even program it into my laptop and it would sound OK – in fact I’d have to as my piano playing is even more rudimentary than my guitar playing.

But business planning is not like classical music, it’s more like jazz…

Now I know at the mere mention of jazz, you might be about to switch off: it’s a music that seems to divide opinion. But whether you think it’s a self-indulgent exercise that mostly appeals to chin-stroking men sporting berets and goatee beards in dingy basements or – like me – you think it’s the sublime art form of the 20th and 21st centuries stay with me for a moment because there’s a point to be made whether your preference is for pop, bebop, hard rock, classical or total silence.

In jazz composition, the music is not always precisely written down – in fact for most smaller groups it may not be written down at all. To write a jazz composition – and I know this because in my time I have written a few (see here for the one surviving recording) – you need a melody and some indication of the harmony and the rhythmic feel. That’s enough data for the musicians to be able to play the tune and then improvise on it.

Every performance will be different, responding to the mood, and what each musician contributes as the piece evolves.

Berets not required

To have effective business plans you don’t need to don a beret, grow a goatee or learn to play very fast scales on the saxophone, you simply need to keep the detail high enough so that you don’t waste time over-specifying things when you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Just like jazz compositions have a few basic elements, business plans are similar – the key parts are:

  • What market are we in? (style)
  • What do we want to do by when (melody and harmony)?
  • What resources do we have? (instrumentation)

Within these three categories there are, of course, a great many questions that you can ask, and will answer during the planning process, putting the answers into some form of documented plan. But the detail doesn’t specify precisely what should happen and when: it just gives enough detail to show the trajectory of the business over time allowing some space for improvisation (a.k.a. agile business decision-making) as circumstances change.

I’ve produced my own simple “composition” guide for business planning: it doesn’t make any references to jazz, but it’s reduced to a page. Feel free to download it to help shape your own organisation’s future plans.

The Power of No (video)

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.

The vision thing: who needs it?

Purpose is key, but you need vision to inform it

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 from useful.

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 following sentence:

“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

“a world 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 put together.

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 market”

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 non-trivial conversation.

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.

You can find out how vision fits in to the KnittingFog approach to strategy and business plan development by downloading my one-page guide.

Free planning guide

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.

To get the guide please follow this link.

The power of No

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 answer?”

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 manageable.

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 friendly nay-sayer?
  • 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

Improve your customer service with more “gorms”

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 words, collectively…

How gormless are you?