Monthly Archives: August 2009

//August

How far do you dare to go?

There is a proven theory that when highly successful business men and women are confronted with a rule or convention that blocks their way, they tend to ignore it, circumnavigate it or simply break it. Very little seems to stand in their way. I have witnessed this at first hand many times, and during a recent tax inspection, I was reminded that perhaps I too (to a lesser extent) have a similar tendency.

There is a short story by Kafka called 'Before the Law' where a man wants to pass through a door to gain knowledge that he believes to be not only useful but also his right to know. But there is a gatekeeper next to the door, supposedly preventing him from entry. The gatekeeper tells him that he does not have permission to enter, so the man waits for days and years hoping that one day it will be granted to him.

As we have all observed, all babies and young children try to challenge authority (for example by throwing their rattle out of the pram, making Mum or Dad cross, and continuing until they either receive a smack or the rattle is taken away). In most cases, as people become older, the pressure to conform pacifies this tendency and only shows itself when they are confronted with unwanted change.

I find this topic useful to consider as it can largely explain one aspect of achieving success. How far are you prepared to break rules and conventions to achieve what you want?

It is no wonder why so many business leaders and politicians end up in trouble. It is not a coincidence that they tend to surround themselves with experienced advisors to get them out the mess that the side effects of ignoring the rules sometimes get them into.

As Oscar Wilde famously said in 1892: ‘Experience is simply the name everyone gives to their mistakes’. The only problem is, when highly successful people break a rule, it is only considered a mistake when it comes back to hit them and their desired end result is not achieved.

Have a good week,

Harley

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“Who’s Running this business?”

Have you ever asked yourself this question? For me it is a little bit like trying to assess my own authority at home. I might like to think that I am ‘the boss’ but sometimes I question how many of my actions are initiated and/or governed by others rather than myself? For example, does my wife manage me or am I managing her? Who is the real boss in our house?

Of course homes usually only have two contending bosses, in business there can be several. For this reason, many academics have invented catchy terms to define the difference between real power and perceived power.

As a young business man in the 1980’s it seemed to me that most businesses were actually being run by their finance directors, rather than their CEOs. Finance departments appeared to dictate not only upon budgetary allocation but also on rather low level expenditure requests. In the UK finance directors were encouraged to focus on the short term in order to deliver share value at the end of the year, rather than at the end of the decade.

But who are the dominant players of our boardrooms today? And how do they obtain their position of power and influence? Who, for example in your business is really calling the shots – or is there a perfect balance between the competing departments?

Over the last thirty years I have been lucky enough to work with a handful of senior managers that have managed to convince their peers into giving them the backing they needed to implement major innovative change projects. I have seen IT directors deliver increased revenues and business leaders redefine their processes in order to save vast sums of wasted time and money. But the battle for innovation, for new and clear thinking in the board room remains.

To celebrate all this and to promote the public debate further, On October the 15th. in Brussels, The Making a Difference team are putting together an interactive event on the subject, lead by two highly successful business leaders and followed by a walking dinner, the event promises to be both challenging and fun. (see Who’s running this business?).

A few tickets are available at 120EUR each but I have two free tickets to give away for the best answer to the following question: ‘Who in the boardroom should be responsible for innovation and ensuring profitable growth?’.

Life is short, and our mission sometimes unclear, but the battle for influence and power remains for many. If somehow we can create some fun along the way then who we are and earning a living have both depth and meaning.

Have a good week,

Harley

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Scrap all sixty minute meetings!

Sixty minute meetings are inefficient and hinder creative thought.

Some companies are worse than others but in most, meetings always start too late and often in a silent mood of frustration rather than anticipation. 

If you take the average meeting there is usually one, or possibly two, people on time while the majority of participants roll in somewhere between five and ten minutes after the meeting was scheduled to begin. This sloppy time keeping stimulates a culture of nonchalance and makes the early arrivers anxious and frustrated and not at all open to listen to contributions from the late comers.

Some meeting managers decide to start meetings without waiting for the late comers.  This generally leads to one or two results: a repeat of what had been discussed or the latecomers miss something importantant early on and thus never fully engage until a new topic is raised.

The solution however is extremely simple.  Ask the system administrators to set the default meeting length to 50 minutes and arrange for automatic reminders for all PC calendars, mobile phones and pda’s for five minutes before the meeting and  again at at the end of the meeting.  This way, the alarms will effectively go off during the meeting reminding everyone to wrap up and either move on to their next meeting or take time out to reflect on the meeting just ended.

The extra 5-10 minutes will give everyone valuable time to either send urgent e-mails, or even better, to think over a key point raised before the next meeting begins. 

One hour back to back meetings kill creativity, de-motivate even the strongest self starters and force staggered starts because they make it impossible to begin the second meeting on time, even if the previous one ended to schedule.

Creativity is not usually found during departmental meetings.  Real vision and insight occurs in moments of quiet reflection, following discussion or deep thought.  In our MS Outlook and Lotus Notes driven worlds, we do not book enough reflection time. 

By enforcing a ten minute break between meetings, there is no excuse for people arriving late, therefore the necessary discipline can be applied, allowing all meetings to start on time and with a greater feeling of optimism and positive energy. 

The apparent shortened running time of ten minutes will keep everyone focused and if the meeting has a well defined meeting objective (only one per meeting) and a balanced agenda – much more productivity will be gained in the long run.

In this 50 minute meeting world, the 30 minute meeting will also need to be reduced to 20 or possibly 25 minutes, depending how far apart the average meeting rooms are.

At the age of eleven I was sent off to a monastery boarding school where bells rang at the end of each class with a five minute break before start of the next one.  A second bell sounded at the beginning of each class and for many masters, if a pupil was not in his classroom before the second bell rang, then the pupil had to remain outside for the entire lesson (catching up either in detention after school or by borrowing notes from a fellow pupil, depending upon the severity of the master). 

Bells were rung at the end and at the beginning not only of classes but also of every event; morning prayers, breakfast, lunch, letter writing, free time, bed time, whenever a time was allocated to a particular activity. 

Being ruled by bells was not so pleasant but it gave an absolutely necessary structure to the school and ensured efficiency and focus.  However, the crucial advantage of breaks between classes was the five or ten minute time zones in which pupils would discuss points raised by the teacher, while on their way to the next class, or possibly stay behind to ask for some clarity on a particular point in the lesson.  Teachers too were forced to adhere to the structure that the bells gave.

Not much is different in a business.  Our electronic calendars dictate our movements.  Of course not everyone is in meetings all day long and some meetings are necessarily longer than an hour but these too should finish, ten minutes before the hour or half past the hour. 

I encourage everyone to try it, not just in one department, but to begin a campaign to introduce it globally.  The 50 minute rule needs to become a part of the company culture and not just the mad whim of one eccentric manager. 

Let me know how you get on.  Begin with a detailed change management plan and an instruction to the IT department with emails to both the HR and communications department heads. 

Have a good week,

Harley

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You are tired – This PC will shut down!

Although it feels like it sometimes, I don’t believe that I am the only person on the planet that regularly works far too many hours behind my PC?  On stretches of more than a few hours in a day that can easily extend beyond 11-12, my eyes begin to ache and my brain becomes fuddled and I begin to use the backspace key more and more.

I recently heard that a group of German scientists have identified universal human behavioral patterns that can accurately signify tiredness. “that’s not too difficult”, I hear you comment, “one would imagine, the yawning would give it away”? 

I also heard that computer designers are now incorporating their results into the proto-type designs of their new generation laptops.  By utilizing built in cameras and microphones, coupled with the use of the backspace and delete buttons, they say they can accurately detect when the user has had enough.  I understand that it is their intention to warn users to take breaks and if necessary, forcibly shut down their laptop!  For me this is going way too far.  If my laptop ever told me “you are too tired – this PC will shut down” it would probably be in pieces on the ground before the logging off Windows logo even appeared.

Obviously in cars and dangerous machinery, this kind of technology could be considered as very useful. But this got me thinking as to how and where it could be effectively used in the office?

  Firstly I thought of when I have to have a serious word with an employee or colleague.  Often I can tell when the recipient of my criticism is not happy with what I have just told them but I sometimes wonder just how unhappy they are, on a scale of 1 to 10?  Today I tend to ask delicate questions to people I trust that might be sitting at a nearby desk to give me some balanced feedback – did I push them too hard this time?  But this technique does not always work, for the lack of a sufficiently well spread, reliable network.  Besides who wants to spy on their employees?  It may be useful to have an indication as to how much people can take, but I do not think it will ever be useful to witness their stress releasing actions.

The role of a sports coach is to get the absolute best out of their team.  And yet a coach can never accurately know where the limit is, therefore they need to use multiple techniques to ensure the continual motivation of their individual team members.  The best coaches also have proven methods for repairing emotional damage when they have pushed too hard.  Perhaps this new behavior detection technology could be useful for monitoring the stress and anger levels in employees?  Perhaps the employee, would not mind showing how cross they are when in the comfort of their own office and apparently alone or in front of their companions?  Ethically, they would obviously have to be consenting to the technology – but  there is still the question of the microphone, sadly, I guess that it would have to be switched off (although it would become a great source for ‘You Tube’ videos)?

The question as to how hard to encourage and push one’s team members is never easily answered.  Because (thankfully) our colleagues are humans and not machines their thresholds can vary from day to day, depending on a whole bunch of meta data that we are often totally unaware of: Have they just had a row with their partner? Are they going through a rough time for some other reason etc.?  In addition – how many of us know our own limits, if we did I wouldn’t be writing this article!

I wonder when we will start to see emotionally intelligent PC’s that read our emotions and coach us through the day and night, making us more efficient and productive?  Until that day comes, I will refer back to rubbing my eyes, swearing a great deal and pressing the ‘Ctrl S’ buttons in a vain hope to save something important before my head hits the keyboard!

Have a good week,

Harley

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Sometimes I wish I was a woman! (GPS units, HP printers and water fountains)!

I don’t know why it is that everything technical that needs doing around the home or office, seems to be the primary responsibility of ‘the man’.  That somehow men are supposed to be good at these sorts of things, that somehow ‘they’ tend to like it and that it is a kind of fun hobby for them?  It’s OK for a woman to say “I am not much good at these kinds of things” (when she really means I am not interested and cannot be bothered) but when a man protests it’s as if he is a bit simple or perhaps not a ‘real man’.

I like to think of myself as an advocate for technology, but only when it works.  Too often I find myself investing what seems to be  hundreds of hours into trying to get a simple piece of software or technology (principally designed to make my life simpler) to run as it should.  

 

Sometimes I think it must be something to do with me, but then when I scratch the surface and do some research on the internet (also very time consuming) I find that hundreds of other people (mostly men) suffer the same fate, but are too ashamed to admit that ‘the technology’ has beaten them.  (As if it were a failure of theirs, rather than the supplier).

For example, what could be simpler than going out and buying a GPS for a motorcycle? 

I recently purchased a Garmin Zumo 660 with detailed maps of Western Europe already installed.  I bought it because someone told me that I could plan my motorcycle trips on my laptop using very easy to use software and then simply download my routes on to the GPS – sounded great.  But when it came down to it, I didn’t even get past first base!

1.       I registered the machine on-line, no problem here

2.       I installed the maps from the CD provided onto my PC, no problem here either

3.       I downloaded updates for the PC maps and tried to register them – I was asked for a product key.

4.       The product key provided did not match the format requested and did not work.

5.       After several hours of searching and re-registering I retrieved a separate code, but that did not match either. (During this process I went from high to low, several times – as each time I thought I had cracked it).

6.       Three weeks later, no response from Garmin support and still no maps that work

 HOWEVER: When I phone the shop where I bought the GPS, the salesman said “yes the codes often do not match, this can be a problem – try phoning the Garmin support line” (3 EUR per minute)!  (If the sales guy knew this, when I purchased the GPS then he should have warned me and I would have left it in the shop.  He certainly did not hint that I would very likely waste an entire Saturday on what should be a ten minute task)!

The point I am making, is that simple things like software codes and download procedures have been around for years now, there should be no excuse for these procedures not to work first time.

We are in danger of making everything we produce far too complex, without offering any real tangible benefits.  Anyone that has owned an HP Office Jet printer knows that quite often you need to pull out the power supply and hard re-boot it, to get it to do even the most basic of operations.  To my absolute horror, I found the water dispenser in the office requires the same technique!  Does a water dispenser really need a microchip in it?  Does this increased technology, offer any real advantage to the end user?

Men are dying of heart attacks, far too young – and I wouldn’t mind betting that it has nothing to do with the pace of life or stress levels caused by ‘normal’ work but more by being given the responsibility for getting badly designed and insufficiently tested technology to work, while their neighbors are sitting on their balconies laughing and drinking sangria, listening to music via their I-phones!

So it’s back to my Garmin GPS and another vain attempt to master something that perhaps is not meant to be. Why do I allow myself to be seduced by this stuff in the first place?

Have a good week,

Harley

 

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