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Keep it simple, stupid

This week marks 20 years since the space shuttle Columbia burned up during its re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board. 

The accident happened because several of the shuttle’s heat-resistant tiles were damaged by a piece of foam during take-off.

NASA’s mission team had noticed the foam hitting the tiles. So they called in specialist engineers from Boeing to help them assess the potential risk.

The slide above is taken from Boeing’s presentation. It’s their analysis of a test carried out to simulate a tile being struck by foam.

You’ll notice a few things about this slide.

First, just how many words there are on it. Powerpoint is presentation software: it’s great for making a single, compelling point (ideally with a big picture), but terrible for conducting a balanced pro/con analysis.

Second, you’ll notice the headline seems positive: ‘Review of test data indicates conservatism for tile penetration’ sounds like engineer-speak for ‘you don’t really need to worry about this.’ 

Yet, when you look into the detail in the bottom half of the slide, the story is quite different. Suddenly we’re talking about ‘significant tile damage’ – and we learn that the size of the sample tested was 640 times smaller than the size of the chunk that actually hit the shuttle. In other words, the test results have almost no relevance to the real situation, so the headline is misleading.

The problem is that both these facts are buried right down at the bottom, in low hierarchy bullet points, in amongst many other, equally-dense slides. So it would be very easy for someone in the audience to miss them and to focus, instead, on the more positive conclusion in the headline. 

The NASA team had options: they could have deployed a military satellite to take a closer look at the damage; they could have attempted a repair in space. Both these options were expensive and difficult: in the event, they decided the risk was low enough not to warrant either, so they did nothing. 

And seven people died. 

Every day, in companies all over the world, similarly unclear presentations lead to similarly bad decisions (hopefully, without similarly tragic consequences). 

So this anniversary is a timely reminder that the way we communicate inside a business matters: not just the big townhall presentations, but the everyday project pitches, briefings, updates, reports.

If your people don’t know how to use Powerpoint to tell their story clearly, then don’t let them use it at all. Make them present without slides.

Trust me: when they don’t have an electronic crutch to lean on, they’ll quickly learn the value of keeping their message simple.

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Energy trumps talent

A few years back, I found myself sharing a table with Chris Blackwell, the legendary founder of Island Records.

He was a lovely man: funny, charming and self-deprecating, with a spectacular fund of stories.

The one I liked best was about how he came to give U2 their first recording contract.

‘I was in London at the time,’ he said, ‘and one of my A&R guys told me I should go and see this band from Dublin, who were playing a small venue in Hammersmith that night.

‘I didn’t really like their demo tape – it wasn’t my kind of music at all. But I was living not far from Hammersmith and the A&R guy was insistent, so I agreed to drop in.’

He arrived as the band were halfway through their third number. There were five people in the audience: Chris, his girlfriend, the A&R guy and a couple of old boys nursing their pints at the bar.

‘The thing is’, said Chris, ‘they still played the gig like it was Wembley stadium. Their energy was tremendous. Song after song, they belted it out with absolute conviction. So I told the A&R guy to sign them, but only on condition that we didn’t spend a penny promoting them.’

When Island celebrated its 40th birthday, Chris said he felt a little embarrassed about the moving tribute paid to him by Bono for having the belief to back U2 at the start.

‘The truth is,’ he said, ‘I’m not sure I did believe in their music. But I totally believed in them. They were so determined to be the biggest band in the world that we never had to lift a finger to help them. They were so professional, so focused on getting the right gigs, the right airtime, building a fanbase: they did it all themselves.’

It’s a reminder that you can have the best plan in the world, the greatest resources, the smartest people – and none of that will make much difference if those people don’t also have the drive and belief to make it happen.

Energy trumps talent every time.

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Bolt from the blue

Back in the days before Netflix and smartphones, being bored used to be a normal part of the human experience. 

I remember hours spent gazing out of the car window as a child, counting different coloured cars, playing I-spy, making shapes out of clouds.

That doesn’t really happen any more. 

We’ve got so used to constant mental and sensory stimulation that we feel genuinely lost without it.

In fact, a recent study, led by Professor Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia, found that most people would rather give themselves a painful electric shock than sit quietly in an empty room for 15 minutes.

The study put hundreds of undergraduates in a room on their own for 15 minutes with no stimulation, to ‘entertain themselves with their own thoughts.’ Most said they found it hard to focus and at least 50% said they actively disliked the experience.

Some of the students were then put in a room where there was one thing they could do: they could give themselves an electric shock. But it was a sufficiently strong and unpleasant electric shock that all of them had earlier said they would pay to avoid it. 

Despite this, when the alternative was to sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes, 67% chose to shock themselves at least once (one very odd chap zapped himself 190 times: he was left out of the final analysis).

‘The untutored mind does not like being left alone with itself’, Professor Wilson concluded in his study. ‘People prefer doing to thinking, even when what they’re doing is so unpleasant that they’d normally pay to avoid it.’

This is a really important point to keep in mind if you want to improve the quality of planning and innovation in your business. 

Thinking is hard work. Most of us don’t instinctively like doing it. And, thanks to the non-stop, always-on stimulus of modern life, most of us don’t really have to: instead, we just keep ourselves busy doing other stuff.

That’s why you’ll always hear people say they have their best ideas when they’re in the shower or out walking. Because they’re doing something worthwhile (which means they’re scratching the itch of ‘being busy’). But they’re also suspending outside stimulus for long enough to engage their mind properly with a problem or idea. Which is when the magic happens.

So your challenge as a business is to help your people recreate that kind of environment during the working day. 

That’s partly about finding a way to shut out the ‘noise’ (meetings, deadlines, presentations, emails) for at least a little while. 

And partly about making it okay for people to use that space to let their minds wander – without having to worry that their colleagues will think they’re just slacking off.

Having ‘a buzzing, stimulating workplace’ is great for your employer brand.

But, if you care about the quality of thinking in that workplace, wouldn’t it be better if people could stop and smell the roses every now and then?

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It’s not about you. It’s about them.

I spent the early part of my life in Nigeria, which has a rich tradition of story-telling, especially among the Hausa tribes of Northern Nigeria, who like to share ‘dilemma tales’ around the evening meal.

These are stories where there isn’t a prescribed ending. Instead, the audience is given a set of facts and a series of alternative outcomes, which they discuss to decide what should happen next.

In one story, for instance, a young man is treated badly by his cruel father, so he runs away. He is taken in by the kindly chief of a neighbouring village, who adopts him as his son and treats him well. But then, through a peculiar combination of circumstances, the real father and adoptive father find themselves pitted against one another. The boy is forced to choose which of them may live and which must die. Where should his loyalty lie?

In another story, the protagonist is a blind man, whose wife, mother and mother-in-law are also blind. Walking along the road one day, he stumbles over something and discovers, to his surprise, that it’s a working eye. He pops it in and, sight restored, finds six other eyes in the road. He gives two to his wife, but must then decide how to divide the remaining four eyes between five sockets. 

Should he risk his wife’s scorn by only giving one to her mother? Would it be better to upset his own mother? Or should he nobly keep just one eye for himself – but risk his wife finding him less attractive than potential two-eyed suitors? 

The stories serve a double purpose: as entertainment and as a kind of moral litmus test, a way to debate and establish cultural norms. It’s the same principle that makes Love Island compulsive viewing – and the reason why soap operas incorporate topical issues into their plot-lines. Because it gives people a chance to get involved. 

Stories are always more interesting to us when we feel involved in them. It’s a point eloquently explained in an article written some years ago by Jeremy Bullmore, the warmest and wisest man in advertising, who died this week:

Involvement seems to me to be the most important part of communication. 

If I do everything as the sender, the only thing left for the receiver to do is refute it, because the only contribution you can make is to disagree with me.

All good storytellers entice their receivers into willing and constructive collaboration. It’s a skilful, delicate and difficult thing to do – particularly in advertising where the pressures of committee and cost tend to favour the ‘explicit’, the ‘unambiguous’, the ‘message which just can’t fail to be understood’.

The explicit and the unambiguous shut out the recipient.

That’s every bit as true on the inside of an organisation as it is on the outside. 

Senior leaders often like the idea that they can bend a narrative to suit their chosen facts and then just keep hammering out a message until ‘everybody gets it.’ 

But they’re forgetting the most important rule of communication, which is that, when nobody’s listening, you’re not communicating.

As Jeremy Bullmore always understood, if you want people to be engaged with your story, you have to start by getting them involved.

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Viva la Resolution

Happy New Year.

And congratulations: if you’re in the 41% of adults who made a new year’s resolution, chances are you’re still on track with it.

Of course, that may not last long. Studies suggest that, on average, 22% of new year resolutions fail within the first week. 40% within the first month. And, by year end, only 8% of resolutions will still be holding.

Sorry to bring you down like that, but it’s always best to be realistic about these things.

In any case, as failure rates go, that’s not dramatically worse than most corporate transformation projects.

Consultancy KPMG says only 30% of corporate transformation programmes achieve sufficient progress to be considered a success.

And, since the Project Management Institute estimates global transformation activity this year will account for around 65 million full time workers and $15 trillion in economic activity, that’s an awful lot of wasted time and money.

So don’t feel too bad about yourself as you’re hanging laundry on your otherwise unused cross-trainer. Most of us have been there. And, by and large, the reasons why most corporate transformations don’t work are pretty much the same. 

For me, the three big ones are:

1. Lack of motivation. ‘Why?’ is always the most important question. It’s easy to give up drinking when you wake up hungover on January 1; less easy to stay on the wagon when you’re out with friends three weeks later. If you’re going to make the effort to do something difficult, there has to be a prize that makes it worthwhile. For most people in most businesses, the end goal of a transformation programme is often either something that doesn’t directly affect them (the business makes more money; the leadership team gets a bonus) or something they feel actively threatened by (they have to learn a new system; there may be fewer jobs). Change takes effort – so, unless the people in your business really want to change things, nothing will happen.

2. Lack of clarity. Most resolutions are framed in pretty vague terms (‘lose weight’, ‘learn a language’) and transformation programmes are often the same. There tends to be a lot of detail about ‘what’s wrong today’, but less detail about the steps to correct it: what will happen and when, who’s involved, what it will look and feel like for them and how progress will be measured. Without that clarity, it’s very difficult to generate and maintain momentum.

3. Lack of focus. Most resolutions run out of steam because life gets in the way (‘I’m too busy to go to the gym’, ‘The weather’s too depressing to give up chocolate now’). Transformation programmes are the same: priorities change, market conditions fluctuate, teams get shuffled, new opportunities crop up. In most cases, there isn’t a dedicated transformation team – it’s something people are doing on top of their day jobs. The more other things they’ve got to think about, the less likely they are to give it their best attention.

Of course, the good news is that all three of these points can be corrected with surprisingly little difficulty: you can make your resolution one of the 8% that sticks and your transformation programme one of the 30% that succeeds. 

All it takes is more discipline in the planning, more engaging communication; and, of course, you have to want it enough.

Do you?

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Ho ho ho

Most of you have probably seen the ‘Santa brand book’ at some point over the last eight years, but it’s still (by a country mile) my favourite piece of festive promotion.

So, in case you haven’t seen it – or just fancy seeing it again – click the link below.

Happy Christmas.

https://www.quietroom.co.uk/santa_brandbook/

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Right notes. Wrong order.

It’s around this time of year that your elderly relatives start scanning the TV schedules to see if anyone’s re-running ‘that’ Morecambe and Wise Christmas special from 1971.

The fact the programme will be 51 years old this year only makes it more likely they’ll howl with laughter when it gets to the familiar punchline.

‘You’re playing all the wrong notes!’, cries renowned classical conductor André Previn, as Eric Morecambe’s shambolic pianist sabotages his orchestra’s performance of a Grieg concerto.

‘I’m playing all the right notes,’ Morecambe defends himself. ‘Just not necessarily in the right order.’

That’s how communication often feels inside a business. 

In theory, everyone is aiming in the same direction and talking about the same priorities. But, in reality, there’s often a massive amount of dissonance, as different parts of the business emphasise different messages – or articulate them in very different ways: with clip-art graphics, clunky language, ‘fun’ fonts and a homemade logo.

Clients sometimes look blankly at me when I point this out. They can’t understand why I’m taking it so seriously. I mean, it’s not like customers will ever see this stuff, right? Surely what matters is that people are getting on board with the messages? If the gist is right, where’s the harm if some of the execution is a bit amateur or inconsistent?

And the answer is that there’s no harm at all, if you don’t care that your Grieg concerto sounds like a music-hall comedy.

If the only thing that matters is that you’re playing the right notes. 

And not whether the resulting noise makes any sense to the audience.

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It’s always about the manager

I spent Tuesday evening at the launch of WorkL’s new Employee Experience report.

WorkL is the business set up by Mark (now Lord) Price, who used to run Waitrose. It’s a data-based approach to helping organisations understand and improve their performance in the big areas that drive engagement.

What’s interesting about WorkL is that it uses an App to gather feedback from employees in over 27,000 organisations around the world, but it also provides specific insight and consultancy for individual businesses.  

The result is that you get a fascinating big picture view of employee experience trends across different industry sectors, countries and socio-demographic groups. And you also get practical, hands-on stuff you can do to improve your own performance.

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Lord Price. When he was at Waitrose, he pioneered a style of leadership based on culture, purpose and empowering individuals. 

Those themes are pretty standard in most businesses now but, 15 years ago, they were still groundbreaking in this country (outside HR departments) – and the success of Waitrose and John Lewis played a big part in bringing them into the mainstream.

After the presentation, I asked him what he thought was the most important factor in making employees happier and more productive at work. 

He said: 

‘Without a doubt, the relationship each individual employee has with their manager. The correlation is so strong that, if I only asked one question – do you have a good relationship with your manager? – I could tell you with confidence what their overall engagement score would be, based on that one answer alone.’

It’s a timely reminder that, whatever else we do to engage people and improve their experience of work, the thing that makes the biggest difference will always be the quality and humanity of their manager.

So choose your leaders well, at every level. Your business depends on it.

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Make your own luck

Ingo Fiedler is a German academic who spent years studying the economics of poker. He discovered that, on average, the player with the strongest hand wins just 12% of the time: less than one game in eight.

In other words, success in poker is much less about what cards you have – and much more about how you play them.

That’s because poker, like life, is a game of partial information (which is why academics like using it as a model for complex decision-making). There are some things everybody knows, some things nobody knows and some things only each individual player knows and everyone else has to guess at. 

Even if you’re lucky with your cards, you can never be certain that one of your opponents hasn’t been luckier. So the best poker players never worry too much about what cards they’re holding. 

Instead, they rely on a mix of memory and maths to help them understand the statistical likelihood of different outcomes. And behavioural psychology to help them understand what their opponents are likely to think and do – and how they’ll react to different cues. ‘Play the man, not the cards’, as the legendary Amarillo Slim once put it.

Leaving aside the casual sexism (Slim played in a time before many of the world’s most successful poker players were women), that’s good advice for any business operating in today’s rather uncertain conditions.

Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t control: the market, the weather, global macroeconomic issues. Those are the cards everyone can see and you can’t do anything to change them.

Instead, focus your attention on what you can control. Watch your opponents carefully and use your experience and analysis to figure out your best way forward.

Is their customer offer or market position likely to be better than yours? If it is, can you dilute their advantage by launching earlier or promoting in a more eye-catching way? If it isn’t, can you anticipate how they might try to do the same to you?

The most successful poker players are the ones who think rationally, not emotionally.

Who are clear-eyed about the relative strength of their position – and adapt accordingly.

Who don’t let themselves get manipulated – or compound a loss because they’re too invested to walk away.

And who are constantly alive to everything around them, absorbing information and learning from their mistakes.

Because in poker, as in life, you get a lot luckier when you work at it.

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Who’s the Twit?

Elon Musk is, by any standard, a brilliant and successful man. Which is what makes his takeover of Twitter such a grimly absorbing spectacle.

Within a month of completing the high profile $44bn purchase, Musk has fired half his workforce, told the remainder they need to embrace a culture of ‘long hours at high intensity’ or leave – and has scared away so many advertisers that Twitter is haemorrhaging $4m a day just to stay in business.

The fascinating question is ‘why?’

Musk says he wants to turn Twitter into a marketplace of global ideas, where people can say anything, however outrageous – because, ultimately, the best ideas will win through by superior reasoning.

But it’s a little difficult to square this with an owner whose default position, when confronted with a dissenting opinion, is to deploy his considerable wealth and power to crush it.

Musk has form in this area. When his (ludicrously impractical) offer of a submarine to help in the recent Thai cave rescue was rejected as a stunt by the British diver Vernon Unsworth, he responded (on Twitter) by accusing Unsworth of being a paedophile.

When Unsworth sued him for defamation, Musk accepted the accusation was false, but defended himself by claiming the term ‘Paedo’ is just a standard form of banter where he grew up in South Africa, so it couldn’t be defamatory. Astonishingly (and legal observers really were astonished), the judge accepted this defence and dismissed the claim. 

Not a very encouraging trailer for the quality of intellectual debate we can look forward to in Musk’s marketplace of ideas. 

There are other explanations, of course.

Maybe he was just bored and wanted a new project. 

Or maybe, having made the grandiose claim that he was going to buy Twitter, he was worried he’d look weak or foolish if he walked away.

Let’s face it, there aren’t many people in the world who can afford to pay $44bn for a car they don’t want and then drive it off a cliff – but Elon Musk is definitely one of them (Forbes estimates his current wealth at $181bn). 

Then again, maybe all this chaos and bloodletting is just part of a bigger, smarter plan which only a visionary like Musk could understand.

Who knows?

In the meantime, we all have ringside seats at the very public dismantling of one corporate culture and its replacement by one that’s radically different.

I have huge sympathy for the people at Twitter who have had their lives and careers disrupted – and seen the things they worked to build ripped apart and dismissed as rubbish. It’s a horrible way to run a business.

But you’ve got to admit it’s fascinating to see what happens next.

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Indulge me

Back in the middle ages, papal indulgences were big business.

The basic idea was that, if you’d behaved badly, you could mitigate the spiritual consequences of that behaviour (in other words, reduce the time you had to spend in purgatory before being allowed into heaven) by funding good works.

A bit like carbon offsetting, really. Burn a village, build a cathedral – call it quits.

Of course, this kind of spiritual indemnity didn’t come cheap, so papal indulgences were mostly focused on the small group of rich and powerful people who could afford them.

The modern equivalent of these people might be a large multinational corporation: Coca-Cola, say, or BP.

Which is why it’s been interesting to see what happened this week when Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably football’s biggest superstar, ostentatiously removed a bottle of Coca-Cola from the table at a press conference and insisted on drinking water instead.

Coca-Cola, which had spent a large amount of money sponsoring the football tournament in which Ronaldo was appearing, was understandably unhappy.

Their lawyers rifled through the contract and forced UEFA into issuing a strict instruction that no more sponsors’ bottles were to be moved.

But the damage was already done. Coke’s share price plummeted by $4bn, as analysts across the globe calculated the likely impact from one of the world’s leading athletes pointing out that sugary fizzy drinks aren’t good for you.

It’s an odd thing, when you think about it. Nobody at Coke can deny that Ronaldo was right. So they find themselves, instead, in the slightly uncomfortable position of insisting that no-one be allowed to point out the truth, because they’ve paid for a different story.

UEFA, in the meantime, has to balance the embarrassment of indulging Coke in this story against the benefit to grassroots football from their sponsorship billions.

It’s a bit like the arts world, where theatres and galleries have had to wrestle with the ethics of accepting money from opioid drug dealers or oil companies – money without which they might struggle to operate.

I don’t really know what the answer is.

I suppose my view is that it’s good to have people build cathedrals.

But it would be better if they didn’t burn the villages first.

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What do you (really) stand for?

This week saw some interesting anniversaries.

200 years since Napoleon died.

200 years since the Guardian made its first appearance (as the Manchester Evening Guardian).

And 100 years since Coco Chanel launched the legendary Chanel No. 5 perfume.

What I find interesting about all three is how their reputations have changed over time.

Napoleon was a small man, but a towering historical presence. He was born Italian, but became an iconic symbol of French greatness. Modern-day Paris is still dominated by landmarks and railway stations bearing the names of his military triumphs.

Yet modern-day French politicians are often careful not to associate themselves too closely with Napoleon, because he was also an avowed racist, who reintroduced slavery to French possessions in the Caribbean and cynically betrayed the Haitian independence leaders who had helped him fight the British.

Not a great look for the leader of a Republic based on liberty, equality and fraternity.

Coco Chanel is another iconic French figure: an intuitive designer, spectacular self-publicist and subtly pioneering feminist, who dragged herself up from poverty to define the style of a generation.

She was also an unapologetic anti-semite and Nazi cheerleader, who spent her war years shacked up in the Ritz hotel with a German diplomat – and was only spared imprisonment because of the personal intervention of her friend Winston Churchill. 

My point is that reputation is never set in stone: glorious achievement in one field won’t prevent your reputation being tarnished by failings in another.

However, the good news is that it also works the other way.

The Guardian was first published by Lancashire mill-owners. In its early years, it was derided by the labour movement as a mouthpiece for capitalist exploitation. During the American Civil War, it loudly supported the Confederate states in their struggle to keep slavery.

Yet, over time – and under the careful stewardship of a new owner – the Guardian gradually established an editorial position more consistent with its lofty pronounced ideals.

During the Spanish civil war, it was the only mainstream British newspaper to oppose Franco. Just as it was the first British newspaper to ring alarm bells about the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, long before that become a fashionable position.

Now, I don’t say this because I’m a particular fan of the Guardian. The truth is, I rarely read it these days and, when I do, I often disagree with its editorial positions. 

But I’m glad it’s there. I think it plays an important role in keeping our leaders honest and promoting a fairer society – and I’m not alone in thinking this.

Opinion polls regularly show the Guardian to be the most trusted source of news, both online and among mainstream print media. 

It’s taken them 200 years to build that trust. Which is an example worth remembering next time you’re thinking about your organisation’s values.

You build trust by doing what you say you’re going to do and by living up to the things you say are important.

In other words, values aren’t optional. They’re not something you can disregard when it’s inconvenient or difficult (when you need to close a factory, say). 

If you do, you will lose trust – and all your other brilliant achievements won’t protect you.

So choose your values carefully.

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The next big thing

It’s just over 300 years since the infamous South Sea investment bubble burst.

It was made up of hundreds of different – and often quite bonkers – investment schemes. Here are three of them (direct quotes from the prospectus): 

‘A process for extracting silver from lead.’

‘A company for making a wheel of perpetual motion.’

And (my personal favourite) ‘A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.’ 

What’s extraordinary is that all three of these schemes found plenty of backers.

Even the brilliant Sir Isaac Newton invested (and lost) a fortune.

Of course, it was a long time ago and our forebears simply didn’t have the knowledge and information that we have today. So it’s easy to look back with an indulgent smirk and feel confident we would never be so naïve.

And yet… 

It’s only 21 years since the dotcom bubble burst, leaving lots of people holding shares in businesses with plans almost as risible as their South Sea counterparts.

It’s only 13 years since the world’s economy imploded, when bankers realised they’d been selling each other toxic subprime mortgage debt repackaged as AAA-rated investments.

And we’re still living through a time where our greatest economic brains simply can’t decide whether Bitcoin is a bubble or not.

That’s because it’s part of human nature to be easily distracted by things that seem new and clever. We’re scared of missing out. We don’t want to be last to the party. And we love a shortcut.

Hence, the explosion of organisational communication tools over the past five years. 

It’s so tempting to believe that, if we can just get the board to sign off on the shiny new comms app, it’ll suddenly be a breeze to get everyone engaged.

The problem is that, after the initial novelty wears off, there’s nothing inherently engaging about the app itself. In the same way there’s nothing inherently engaging about Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest.

What makes them engaging is that people are able to use them to connect with people and ideas they find interesting and cool and fun.

In other words, it’s not about the shiny new tech. It’s about what’s on it – and whether it feels relevant and interesting and useful to the people you want to use it.

It’s about the message, not the medium. Substance, not hype.

It’s about giving people the freedom to engage with each other on subjects that interest them. Not pushing out top-down, functional ‘approved messages’ that your leadership team wants them to know.

To put it another way: there’s no point investing in the shiny new tech, unless you’re also ready to embrace a much looser and more organic way of communicating.

Which is hard work. And tricky to manage. And scary for the people at the top of your business (who often don’t like the idea that they’re not in control of the narrative). 

But it’s also absolutely essential.

Because, as those South Sea investors learned the hard way, there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.

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Starlings vs. Lemmings

One of the most bizarre – and beguiling – things you’ll ever see in nature is a murmuration of starlings.

This is when hundreds (sometimes thousands) of starlings swarm together and, in almost perfect synchronisation, swoop and twist and expand, as if they were a single creature with a single mind.

That description doesn’t really do the phenomenon justice, of course. So, if you’ve never seen a starling murmuration, have a look at this:

Extraordinary, right?

What’s even more interesting is how and why they do it.

Ornithologists and animal behaviourists have studied starling murmurations for centuries. And the conclusion they’ve come to is that the birds are not taking their lead from a pace-setter at the front (as migrating geese do). 

They’re not following a choreographed plan.

Instead, they achieve their amazing synchronisation by focusing on the six or seven birds closest to them and reacting instantly whenever any one of them switches their flight pattern.

Why? Because they know they’re safer and more successful when they stick together. But they also know they’ve got a better chance of evading predators, or finding the best feeding spots, if they trust and respond to the instincts of the companions around them.

In other words, they become far more effective than the sum of their parts. 

Which is why a starling murmuration is such a good analogy for how an empowered organisation should work. Everybody moving in the same direction – but able to react quickly to threats and opportunities, because they trust the colleagues around them to make good decisions.

Unfortunately, it’s not the model that most organisations actually follow. Which is to have a shared plan and make sure everybody sticks to it.

That’s a good way of getting everyone moving in the same direction. But it won’t help you react flexibly to emerging threats and opportunities.

Instead, like gazelles on the Serengeti, your people will end up focusing all their energy on getting close to the inside of the herd, so they’ll be less likely to get picked off by predators.

Or like lemmings in the Arctic, they’ll focus rigidly on the plan. 

Even when it means they fall off a cliff.

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Changing the game

Short selling, as you probably know, is when an investor (let’s call them A) is so confident the value of a stock will continue falling that they bet on it. 

They make a deal to sell shares to B at an attractively low price, without actually owning the shares yet. Then they wait for the value to fall, so they can buy the shares at an even lower price, deliver them to B at the price agreed and bank the profits.

This is an arrangement that seems quite strange to people outside the financial markets (how can you sell something you don’t own?) But it’s legal and it has, historically, proved hugely profitable for Hedge Funds. 

The problem is what happens when that bet goes wrong: when the market doesn’t do what you expect and the share price goes up. A is still contractually obliged to give B the shares they’ve paid for, which means A has to acquire those shares at whatever price the market demands. So A makes a loss, not a profit.

That’s what happened last week to a number of Wall Street Hedge Funds, who had taken a short position on GameStop, a loss-making retailer.

Amateur market-watchers noticed so many funds were ‘shorting’ the stock that there weren’t enough actual shares to cover all the exposure. They smelt an opportunity, bought some shares and went on Reddit to urge fellow private investors to do the same.

The result was that, instead of falling, GameStop’s share price surged from $2.57 to nearly $500. It made no sense, but that didn’t matter. By the time the funds had worked out what was happening and bought enough shares to cover their obligations, they’d collectively lost around 19 billion dollars. They’d been beaten at their own game, by amateurs.

What’s interesting is that many of the amateur investors who piled in don’t seem to have been motivated by money. They know the shares they’ve bought are likely to drop in value just as quickly as they’ve risen. And they don’t care.

Because what they really wanted to do was give the Hedge Funds a bloody nose.

I suspect many observers feel some sympathy with that. After all, short-selling is a pretty unsavoury practice: Hedge Funds can buy and sell stock in such significant volumes that the simple act of offering the shares at a lower price often triggers precisely the fall in value they’re betting on. Which hardly seems fair. 

Especially when you consider that, for the Hedge Funds to win, someone else has to lose – which, in this case, includes the real people who work in GameStop’s stores and may lose their real jobs when the company’s value plummets.

That’s why I always think the most important question any business needs to ask (and keep asking) itself is this: what value do we create? What would the world lose if we weren’t here?

If the only answer is ‘money’, you’d better start looking over your shoulder.

Because the real people have figured out how to play your game. And they’re coming for you.

Positivity is contagious

A long time ago, when I was a student, I used to spend my Summers working on campsites in France.

One of them – right on the northwest tip of Brittany – was run by a lovely old man called Pierre le Cuff. He had thick white hair, twinkling eyes and, in the three months I knew him, the only time I saw him without a broad smile on his face was when he was playing boules.

Every morning around 10, M. le Cuff used to stop at my tent. He’d pull up a chair, I’d make him a coffee and we’d chat for 20 minutes. Often about his wife, who he adored. Or about the weather, which was terrible that year.

At one point, it rained solidly for four weeks: the wind got so strong that three of his tents blew into the sea. Bookings took a hammering: the campsite was barely half-full at what ought to have been the busiest time of year – he must have been losing money hand over fist.

And still he’d show up every morning at my tent with a cheery grin and a bag of croissants.

Then he’d wander round the campsite doing the same with all his customers. Laughing about the weather, making a fuss of the kids, offering suggestions for day trips and restaurants to visit.

No wonder most of them came back year after year. Especially the British campers, of whom M. le Cuff was particularly fond. 

When I asked him why, he laughed and said:

‘Because the British broke my leg.’

In 1940, at the start of the war, M. le Cuff was in a French cavalry regiment. He broke his leg during a football match with the neighbouring British artillery. It was a bad break and he was still in hospital four days later, when his regiment went into action against the invading German Panzers. All his friends were killed – as he would have been, if not for a clumsy tackle by a burly geordie.

One of the perks of my job is that I get to meet a lot of different leaders in a lot of different businesses.

They’re a fascinating mix of personalities. But, without exception, the one characteristic all the most successful ones share is a positive outlook. 

They don’t waste time worrying about things they can’t control (like the weather or a broken leg). Instead, they focus all their energy on what they can control, because that’s where the opportunity is.

Whenever I used to grumble about the rain, M. le Cuff would make me stop and look at the scenery around us. It was beautiful, even through the drizzle: windswept dunes, turquoise water, a white sand beach with nobody on it.

He’d sweep his arm from one horizon to the other and say:

‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.’

You know what? I think he was right.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, the campsite is still there – and thriving (these days, it’s run by M. le Cuff’s son, Hubert). Camping des Abers in Landeda. One of my favourite places in the world.