The simple formula you need to shape your post-pandemic planning

In a previous article I talked about the importance of knowing what business you are really in to get a firm hold on what’s going to be critical as your business emerges from the current crisis.

The business you are really in is another way of discovering your deeper purpose or as Simon Sinek puts it, your “why”. But it’s only one side of the equation: as well as understanding this purpose you need to have customers who share that purpose in some way. To use Sinek’s example, Apple would not be successful if their why didn’t resonate in some way for their millions of customers.

“Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”

Simon Sinek

However, organisations often don’t pay enough attention to their customers’ “why” (you could argue that since Sinek made that point Apple has lost its own why) and end up wondering why they don’t attract or retain enough business.

To uncover the customer why – let’s call it Y for simplicity – you need to look beyond the what and how of your products or services to uncover your customers’ deeper motivations in using them. This isn’t always obvious but luckily, it’s not that complicated, and I want to illustrate it with a recent example that’s quite close to home.

Can’t stop the music…

My son Dave is a graduate of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and has since graduating two years ago embarked on the precarious but noble career of freelance jazz musician. Resisting the siren call of London he remained in South Wales to work within its small but lively jazz scene.

He and some fellow graduates organised themselves into a collective – Bamzu – that, prior to lockdown, had begun to attract good crowds to regular gigs and jam sessions. Often the attendees were regulars from the college’s weekly Amser Jazz Time sessions who had seen the musicians develop through the years of their course.

When lockdown hit, Bamzu, like other venues and groups, moved their operations online, organising fortnightly ticketed concerts via Zoom live from performers’ homes. I’ve been to two so far and have been very impressed by the quality of musicianship and the sense of connectedness with the musicians (this isn’t just proud Dad bias as my son has yet to play on a session).

Simple gestures

But you can get online performances from almost anyone so what makes this special and what’s the Y? I’d say that what’s important isn’t just the what (jazz) or the how (Zoom) but the sense of community in these events. Having been to a few live events in Cardiff in the past few years I know some of the regulars by sight so seeing them on the call (we’re mostly all on video) is as close to turning up to a gig as I’m likely to get for the moment. Participants are off mute before the music starts so it’s a bit noisy and chaotic too.

This club-like atmosphere may be initially off-putting to outsiders, but two simple gestures add to the sense of community. When the music stops, the mute goes off so that the audience can applaud, whoop or whatever – not a common feature in most online shows – and at the end of the whole session, the host plays a danceable track and pans around the audience allowing a wave or some adventurous/embarrassing on-screen move-busting. It was during this part at the end of the last gig that the penny dropped: our Y was the sense of community and connection as much as the music.

The way of why?

For all those with a lifelong dread of maths, introducing a formula, even a simple one, may mean I lost you at the heading. But don’t worry, it’s a simple one. We have established that customers’ purpose in being your customer is Y so you simply need to make sure your own purpose – let’s label it y – equates to that, i.e.

Y = y.

Jazz has a reputation as a recondite art form (appealing to people who use words like recondite) so the Bamzu collective could have contented themselves with livestreaming performances with minimal communication, relying on their excellence as musicians to do the work. But, intentionally or not, they have recognised that the business they are in is more about community and involvement and – it’s early days so who knows – this may bring them an audience beyond their original geography.

I did it my y

Every day what gets me out of bed isn’t just the alarm clock or the thought of 30 minutes’ lockdown home gym work but because I believe that organisations of all shapes and sizes can do what they do for their customers differently and better than today by realising their inherent capabilities and thinking creatively about their business and its possibilities.

It’s taken me a while to articulate my y and I don’t claim the preceding sentence is the finished article but it’s a bit more specific, and hopefully more distinct, than simply management consulting, which is what I do. By definition then, my clients – ideally – have a Y that complements my y, in other words they want to think differently about their business and turn those thoughts into action.

The Y = y formula is a journey that organisations undertake, and that journey is fundamental to thinking positively and creating a viable and successful post-pandemic future. I have some fun ways of getting to Y (that’s part of my how) that I’ll share in future articles.

The one question you must answer when post-pandemic planning

Like most other people I know my diet has changed since the lock-down began. There’s a definite emphasis on “comfort food” – perhaps more carb-heavy than normal, an increased choice of desserts and a definite nod towards the foods enjoyed in childhood (rice pudding hasn’t featured yet but it’s on the to-cook list).

The collective psychology of this is interesting: in a time of stress we gravitate towards certainty and things that make us feel better, even if they don’t necessarily make healthier in the long term.

I’m tolerating my consumption of comfort food for as long as I can counterbalance it with an attempt at regular exercise (no Joe Wicks for me but a combination of 5k runs and a living room gym just about works) but I’m more concerned about the lure of what I call mental comfort food when planning a future beyond the current pandemic.

Mental comfort food

On a personal and organisational level, we’ve all seen and experienced rapid adaptation to accommodate the impact of physical distancing and social isolation. Remote working, videoconferencing and “Zoom drinks” have all become commonplace and look set to play a major part of our work and social lives even after the pandemic has abated.

It takes longer to adapt our thought processes though and there’s a tendency to fall back old paradigms to address new challenges: mental comfort food.

Unfortunately, this won’t do because, irrespective of which industry you work in, the assumptions on which you based your current business model have irreversibly changed.

It’s time for a re-think and, for me, the most important question you can ask is not things like “how many customers will we be able to serve given the requirements for physical distancing?” or even “how can we move our business online?” – important though those are you need to be asking something more fundamental:

“What business are we really in?”

At first sight this may be a daft question since whether you’re a theatre director, a hairdresser or a banker, I’m assuming you’re aware of the industry sector you work in and therefore what type of business you run.

However, when you scratch the surface, that definition isn’t very helpful in deciding what kind of customers you want to attract and retain: it’s much more useful to ask why those customers choose to do business with you rather than a competitor.


Continuing the comfort theme, let’s take a look at one of the new breed of online mattress sellers. A while back I was in the market for a new mattress and became interested in Simba. I chose this company because I was the near victim of an attempted scam involving delivery of a couple of mattresses I hadn’t ordered: they helped me sort it out and I suffered no loss. Curious, I investigated their range and discovered that their proposition didn’t just include comfy mattresses but ancillary products such as bed linen (fairly obvious I guess) and pillow sprays to help you sleep (slightly less obvious). More unexpectedly they offered – last year at any rate – an opportunity to sleep over in one of a number of rooms equipped and furnished with their products – a real lifestyle pitch that has now been killed off by coronavirus.

Simba’s real business is not mattress-selling – although that activity forms a large part of what they do – but could be in the business of creating a restful night-time environment or, given that they started in thread making for mattresses then diversified they could be in the business of adapting and shape-shifting according to the needs of the market.

Adapt or die?

I mentioned previously that my wife runs ante-natal classes for the NCT and has rapidly adapted to teaching via Zoom. The NCT is an interesting case – most people join classes to find out more about birth and subsequent childcare but there’s a social element that is also important: classes become a support group and very often enable relationships to be built that last a lifetime. Pre-pandemic, classes met together in a venue and groups would often move on afterwards to a pub or other venue to socialise. Classes via Zoom and a WhatsApp group can’t exactly mimic this, but as people get used to socialising and receiving information via remote means, it becomes much more acceptable.

The important thing is that NCT are in the business of creating social support structures as much as educating about childcare. Creative use of the technology allows this to be sustained during the pandemic and may – who knows? – form part of the future way of working.

Beyond the doom and gloom

But let’s say you’re a local arts centre with a small auditorium and a programme of theatre or other performances that you’ve had to put on hold while you furlough staff and find ways of keeping the centre going when you have no one coming to the theatre. At first sight, long term imposition of social distancing measures might threaten the basis of your business, but there are signs that creative thinking can pay off. For example, in April a site-specific immersive production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest successfully moved to an online, immersive production via Zoom. (The review I read was so enthusiastic that, by the time I decided to book, all the seats had been sold for the remaining performances.)

Creation Theatre’s business is theatre productions – obviously! – but as far as I can see it’s mainly in the business of creating site-specific magic and, when the physical site can no longer be accessed, the magic can transfer to a conferencing platform with a few adjustments.

In a local arts centre it’s unlikely you would be able to transfer all your productions in the same way but it might be that, although performance is what you do, a significant part of the business you are in may be more to do with creating a community than with particular performances and therefore, temporarily until performances resume, your focus may have to be on building and maintaining that sense of community, achieving some of your purpose without doing what might have been the core of your business. Virtual operation might enable your community to be extended beyond its local geographical boundaries.

Coronavirus and the constraints it places on organisations force a review of what’s possible – and to make the most of this, organisations need to understand what they are really about and then match the possibilities to the way forward. This thinking is fundamental to my KnittingFog strategy and planning workshops – and if you’re in the arts or non-profit sector then these are currently being made available free of charge. If you’re interested, please get in touch.

Coronavirus and change: sensitivity required

The “elastic band” reaction to change is becoming apparent

It seemed like a good idea at the time: take the first three months of 2020 “out” on a project whose full-time, full-on nature didn’t allow much time for writing or video work, come back and resume my regular posting of ideas on change and related topics.

This all went swimmingly… until coronavirus happened. First impression was that all would be OK. I simply stopped travelling to the client’s site and completed the last two weeks of the project remotely, with technology – and the client’s own nimble action in organising remote participation – helping immensely.

When I resurfaced at the beginning of April, I plunged back into my other activities: working with a small number of non-profit organisations, setting up future opportunities and setting myself some lockdown learning objectives. (As one of my colleagues put it – quoting Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel – “you can’t let a serious crisis go to waste.”)

But amidst all this activity – not to mention my new daily exercise hour to make up for the lack of commuting and the closure of my local gym – I began to find that things were slowing down, and my productivity was taking a hit.

What was going on? 


I was experiencing something that I have noticed affecting people on a personal and organisational level. I call it elastic band syndrome and it’s common to many situations where significant change happens in a short space of time.

There’s a commonplace complaint in almost all organisations that I have worked with that “people resist change”. They do, but when circumstances are right people will be very good at adapting to change. It’s been happening everywhere since mid- to end-March and I’ve personally seen this in some different areas:

  • My most recent client turned their front and back office operations over to remote working in a very short period of time.
  • The NCT moved its ante-natal classes onto Zoom in the space of around a week, turning its ante-natal teachers into online videoconferencing experts. (My wife runs classes and is now the resident expert on facilitating online meetings.)
  • Socially, all kinds of groups have moved online and the phenomena of remote drinks, dinner parties and coffee mornings are now commonplace.

And, since visiting them is not currently possible, my in-laws (aged 87 and 94) are becoming adept at video calls with us… it’s all good but…

Stretch goals

…whilst changing working practices, making difficult decisions about furloughing staff or adapting to being furloughed can be – and has been – done in a very short space in time, it’s literally a stretch to do so and the effect is like stretching an elastic band – the resistance of the band to being stretched will force a return to its original state. Maintaining the stretch over a long period of time will eventually become exhausting.


Symptoms of this can be visible on a personal level: I’ve had periods over the past few weeks where I find myself suddenly feeling quite low (not my normal state) or becoming very irritable. Whilst some of this can be attributed to late mid-life crisis or general grumpiness, I think it’s much more noticeable whilst there is a background of stress and uncertainty.

My first reaction to a period of locked-down home-based working: to fill my time with learning objectives, sales and marketing goals and so forth was perhaps understandable but of course added to my own stress level rather than providing motivation to power through the crisis.

I know I am not the first to say this but the lesson to take from this is simple: BE KIND – to yourself, colleagues and family.


So, simple lesson learned but there’s a bigger point for those involved in change management: we’re usually pretty good at assessing people’s readiness for change via surveys, focus groups and so for the but how often do we take into account the “background noise”, the context for the change.

In the case of coronavirus, the background noise is comparable to a neighbour playing loud music all day long (something mercifully absent in my immediate neighbourhood so I’m enjoying the traffic-free stillness while it lasts) when you’re trying to work. In that kind of environment your productivity will drop, and your focus will be on dealing with the noise, not the task in hand. Asking people to change their behaviour in a time of great stress is possible but likely to be a short-term response, not a permanent shift.

The lesson for change managers as we plan for the “next normal” (as McKinsey refer to it in some of their recent articles) is two-fold:

  1. Considerable imagination, innovation and experimentation will be required to ensure organisations survive into the post-pandemic era and this will require people to adopt and adapt to new working practices, but…
  2. The residue of stress from the pandemic will affect their ability – and energy – to change.

Plotting a course through the next few months and years will require sensitivity and insight to make sure the changes people are required to make have a lasting beneficial effect – on themselves and the organisations and customers they serve.

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.

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

Most strategies don’t work! Here’s how to have one that does

Most organisations have a strategy, and many devote some of the best and smartest brains in the organisation to developing and implementing it. Almost all of this falls short in some way or other. So, is strategy failing to deliver?

In their new book “Beyond Default: Setting Your Organization on a Trajectory to an Improved Future” change strategists David Trafford and Peter Boggis pinpoint what’s wrong with most business strategies: the failure to realise what trajectory you are on – and why – and where it’s taking you.

I had the pleasure of working with both David and Peter when we were all at CSC Index, the consultancy that gave birth to business reengineering, back in the 1990s.

I recently caught up with David and asked him some questions about the compelling and practical ideas the book contains.

NB: The idea of an organisation being on a trajectory is a compelling one, but I’ve not seen it articulated in this way before. Has anyone else defined strategy in a similar way before?

DT: Not that we’re aware of. The thinking emerged over many years of consulting to and advising companies and it really accelerated over the last eight years since we set up our own company (Formicio). We kept hearing language like “This organisation is hard-wired, it will never change” and CEOs would say the organisation won’t change or people tell me what they think I want to hear but nothing changes. And when you talked to non-execs they would say we need a change of direction – but the only lever they’ve got is to change the CEO. Companies were spending millions of pounds on transformation programmes, but they weren’t delivering. We figured something more fundamental must be going on.

As we thought about it we started to use the term “default future”, we were then approached by a publisher who had seen some of the ideas on our website and thought they would make a good book. When we suggested a title for it, which was too long and complicated, the publisher suggested it was really about taking organisations beyond their default, hence the title of the book.

Then we started to use the term trajectory rather than “path” and the more we worked on it, the clearer it became. In 2016 we concluded that our default future was that the book wouldn’t get finished if we just continued to talk about it. So we sat down to write it: once we’d articulated the default future it became easier to take action to change our own trajectory.

NB: The idea of a trajectory makes sense to me because anything you plan to do is a bit like shooting an arrow long distance, you have to set it off on a path and hope it gets somewhere near the target.

DT: When we launched the book an old colleague of mine – who’s an engineer by training – asked why we were using the term trajectory. He didn’t get it initially but then after a while he came back to me and said it’s like crossing a river – if you want to get to the other side, you have to take the current into account.

NB: The first half of the book makes for tough reading if you’ve spent part of your career working on strategy as it sounds like we’ve been wasting our time defining things that can’t be implemented! Is it the strategy that’s wrong – not taking account of those internal and external forces? Or just poor execution? Or are people just over-optimistic about the chances of success?

DT: All of these things: When CEOs think of the future, they think of the future they want to have, not the one that they’re going to get, so they falsely assume they can change the trajectory of the organisation and also that they’ve got more power to change it than they really have. So they say “We’re going to become X”, but don’t articulate X very well. Often there’s a small group involved in developing the strategy but that doesn’t mean everyone outside that group understands it. Very often strategy is poorly communicated or is based on false assumptions.

I’ve seen many strategies but often I just don’t get it. I find myself thinking, is it so sophisticated that a simple person like me doesn’t get it or is it just nonsense? I usually then ask: “help me to understand how by doing this you achieve that?” This simple question often triggers a rethink.

So, there are three things that are often wrong: 1) a false assumption that you can get the future you want, 2) it’s poorly articulated and 3) it’s poorly executed

NB: Particularly if it involves IT?

Absolutely! Take customer experience: it’s easy to say: “we’re going to give our customers a compelling digital experience”, but you have to consider your legacy infrastructure. It doesn’t mean to say you can’t start doing it but it’s more of a directional thing than an end state – you need to be cognisant of the limitations. A number of digital transformations have started but then failed. People underestimate the money and effort required to re-platform.

NB: And often the solution is just to put more and more effort into building that platform…

DT: It’s a false assumption that organisations are capable of delivering digital. One Insurance CEO we spoke to realised that their IT capabilities were wrong so went externally (to Silicon Roundabout – London’s digital agency hub) and brought it in. Another CEO in a different sector bought a pureplay digital company – then had the challenge not to destroy its successful culture.

NB: Is there an optimum size or shape where it’s easier to articulate the default and desired futures? Some businesses are complicated so there will be lots of different trajectories?

DT: It’s a combination of size, complexity and legacy thinking. The optimum size is where it’s perceivable by the CEO – i.e. it can be retained it in the head all at the same time. For example, a mobile digital bank is fairly straightforward, but for a global bank with many lines of business in different geographies, you can’t easily do that. The divisions can but then the challenge is to align the different trajectories.

What I see is the CEO delegating accountability to the divisions and this translates into individual strategies but with no overarching trajectory or synergies. So, a new group CEO can say the focus is on delivering end to end digital CX, but legacy thinking leads to doing things in the same way. When the overarching strategic intent is translated into the divisions, something gets lost along the way, for example, how does the US division align with international? Executives do different things according to their accountabilities and incentives. Silo organisations are, in themselves, a powerful navigating force that keeps the organisation on a certain trajectory.

NB: Silos will always exist though and – as articulated in your book and through our own experience – operating principles can be a powerful tool to help link across the silos.

Absolutely right – operating principles are a powerful way of making strategy meaningful to those people who were not engaged in developing the strategy. When we articulate principles we’re effectively saying do it this way not that way – a principle always implies a conscious choice.

Many organisations confuse principles and policies – but if you articulate principles there are implications, and this is what needs to be managed. You can’t just declare them, you have to manage the implications (which in turn will shape your policies and procedures).

You can then translate operating principles into design principles for different facets of the organisation, for example IT systems, processes and organisational structure.  These in turn will have implications that need to be managed. It requires joined-up thinking, which actually is quite rare.

NB: So you’re making conscious choices about the culture you want to create – but I didn’t spot the word ‘culture’ anywhere in the book. Was this a conscious choice?

DT: Yes, we intended deliberately not to use it and chose instead to focus on ‘organisational capabilities’. In addition, I don’t think you’ll spot the word vision in there either – or mission.

NB: These are all terms that are well-used, and that people understand, but I’ve started to use “purpose” as this has a greater simplicity. This also connects to your personal purpose as you state at the end of the book.

I like the example of purpose. We didn’t use the language of vision or mission as they are based on a false assumption: it assumes we live in a static world. And it assumes that we can define a change programme to take us to our vision. But we live in a volatile and uncertain world, and by the time you get to your vision, you find you need to be somewhere else because the context has changed.

What we say in the book is that the future exists but it’s not evenly distributed. You have to be cognisant of the exogenous navigating forces that are continually changing your context and the strategic trajectories you could pursue.

NB: You did pick up on one well-used term: Operating Model – but in my experience it’s used differently and less powerfully that you intend.

You’re absolutely right: it’s a powerful idea that has been hijacked and corrupted. It has to be consciously designed and it’s multifaceted (processes, IT, organisation, roles and culture). Very often it looks like the organisation has been designed by accident!

NB: The other powerful idea is that of a “strategic signature” which I would simplify as “taking all the things that we’re doing and varying them”

DT: About three years ago we were working with company and the CEO and Board were having difficulty becoming aligned around the strategy. We helped them identified their different strategic axes – which represent their sources of value – and then facilitated a process where they decided if they were going to introduce new strategic axes or drop some existing ones.  They then decided where they where are you going to operate on each strategic axis.

And the resulting “signature” is unique, even between different players in the same industry, and when you identify current and future signatures this leads to a meaningful conversation about where you can “increase the volume” on some axes and turn it down on others. It’s a very simple tool that creates a meaningful dialogue and alignment of understanding.

NB: Can you cite organisations that have embraced this approach wholeheartedly?

It’s difficult to find one that’s done everything in the book and also some of our client examples are confidential, so we can’t quote them directly. What we’ve done is to cite organisations that are in the public domain who show evidence of doing, or have done, what we’re talking about – even if they don’t know it.

For example, that’s why we used Blockbuster, it’s well cited by anyone who can remember them. Nokia also follows the thinking exactly. And with GE, we talk about their strategic focus shifting to industrial products and the industrial internet and moving away from financial services. However, the cost of changing their trajectory is proving to be higher than they would have liked due to liabilities they retained when the divested their insurance businesses.

NB: What’s your advice to someone who’s not a CEO – how can they get started?

DT: Start by using the language.  I’ll give you an example: my son, who works in a large multinational organisation has been using the language of default future for some time and about a year ago he was in a meeting with his boss’s boss and other some senior people when his boss’s boss started to use the terms default future and trajectory to describe their strategy.  It’s now becoming more commonly used across the organisation. More recently he’s introduced the language of operating principles, so I would say just start using those ideas in conversations in your business.

More information on David and Peter’s book Beyond Default can be found at

Putting the ART into SMART

Smart people, but not that radical

SMART objectives: anyone who’s been trained in best practice for personal or project planning knows about them. It’s a convenient shorthand that’s found its way into common usage but is it any use? Sometimes I find a little redefinition is in order.

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