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?

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.

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?

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/

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.

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.

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.

Covid, cancer and creativity

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, Richard Nixon’s attempt to immortalise himself as the President who beat cancer.

The plan was to copy the spirit of JFK’s ‘man on the moon’ vision and throw so many resources at the problem that, within five years, nobody in the USA would die from it any more.

Unfortunately, ‘beating cancer’ turned out to be a lot more complicated and nuanced than putting a man on the moon. Which is why, 50 years later, Nixon’s legacy is rather less glorious than he’d imagined and cancer is still the second biggest cause of death worldwide. 

That’s not to say things haven’t got better. Survival rates have improved significantly for every major type of cancer. 

Except one.

While overall cancer deaths have fallen, deaths from pancreatic cancer have actually risen. It’s now the second-biggest cause of all cancer mortality, killing half a million people worldwide every year, with a survival rate of just 5% in the UK (compared to 76% for breast cancer, or 53% for bowel cancer). 

How come? Why has this particular form of cancer resisted efforts to tame it?

There are a number of reasons. It’s hard to detect. It spreads more easily. It hasn’t had the profile of other cancers – and, therefore, not as much focus or research funding.

But the biggest problem, historically, has been not so much the scale of the resources available as the way they’ve been deployed.

All the big pharmaceutical companies have invested money and expertise in researching ways to treat pancreatic cancer. But most of that research hasn’t worked, which means they’ve hushed it up (‘don’t spook the shareholders’).

Which, in turn, means that, instead of pooling resources and learning from each other’s failures, they’ve wasted time and money duplicating them. 

In the meantime, 95% of people with pancreatic cancer are still dying from it – probably even more this year, since the lockdown has made it harder to detect the disease at an early stage.

And yet, oddly, the long term impact of the pandemic may actually be far more positive for cancer sufferers. Why? Because it’s changed the way people think.

Backed by massive government funding, pharmaceutical companies have combined with research institutes and health agencies to create not one, but five, viable vaccines to combat the covid-19 pandemic. 

Less than a year after the work started, the vaccine is already in the market and protecting people – one tenth of the time it would typically take. 

Working together on the covid vaccine has built relationships and trust between competing clinical bodies. More importantly, it’s built an instinct of collaboration, where people talk openly about research that didn’t work, because it helps everybody’s thinking move on faster.

The results are already seeping into cancer research, with a more collaborative approach yielding encouraging progress in treating pancreatic symptoms.

There are important lessons in this for any business.

The most important being that, if you really want people to be innovative, you have to create a culture where they’re not too scared to tell you something didn’t work.

Where they’re motivated to help each other, not keep things to themselves.

And where they can focus on the problem, without being distracted by money.

Common sense, dancing

As a teenager growing up in the early 1980s, I wasn’t interested in reading newspapers.

Especially not big, dull, worthy newspapers like the Observer, which my parents used to get every Sunday.

But I did notice that, when my dad read the Observer, there was always one point where his expression would change.

His frown would disappear. His eyes would crinkle with pleasure. And, every now and then, he would grin – or even laugh out loud.

One week, he laughed so hard that he sprayed coffee all over his shirt. When he went to the kitchen to clean it off, I picked up the newspaper to see what was making him laugh that much.

It was Clive James’s weekly column of television criticism. I can’t remember exactly what the content covered that week, but chances are it will have included Dallas, Star Trek and athletics commentator David Coleman.

It was sharp, irreverent, well-informed and very, very funny.

The following week, I read the column again. It was even funnier. James had a magical – apparently effortless – gift for using language to highlight the ridiculous and skewer the pompous.

The way he wrote about television was so much better than actually watching television that it occurred to me, for the first time, that there might be some value in newspapers, after all.

Nearly forty years later, I still have three volumes of his TV criticism on my bookshelf – and I still enjoy them, even though the programmes they’re reviewing are a very vague and distant memory.

What made his writing so good? I’m not sure. Although his style was unique at the time, lots of columnists have since tried to copy it, with varying degrees of success.

But the one thing that always comes through loud and clear, even at his most scathing, is James’s absolute affection for his subject.

The ability to laugh at things we hold dear – and not hold them in reverential awe – is a valuable gift for any business leader and communicator.

As James himself put it:

‘A sense of humour and common sense are the same thing, working at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.’

Which is why you should always be wary of any business, or business leader, that takes themselves too seriously.

Clive would have skewered them.

To be clear

One phrase we can all expect to be hearing a lot over the next few weeks, as the election campaign hits its straps, is ‘I am very clear…’

Like most phrases beloved of politicians, its meaning has been diluted by overuse and insincerity.

Politicians generally say it when they want to sound like they’re setting out a clear position, without actually committing themselves to anything. Or when they’ve changed their position and don’t want to admit it.

The exact opposite of clarity, in other words.

I thought about this on Saturday morning, when I was watching the rugby world cup final at an event hosted by LG in London.

The result wasn’t what the audience was hoping for, but it was an enjoyable and well-run event (and the TV screen was spectacular!)

There was also a guest appearance from Dylan Hartley, the former England rugby captain – who, but for a poorly-timed knee injury, might have been leading his side into that final.

During a Q&A session after the game, Hartley offered a fascinating insight into what it takes to build a team that performs consistently at the highest level.

For much of the last four years, he has played a pivotal role in the journey England have been on under coach Eddie Jones – starting in the aftermath of their inglorious exit from the pool stage of the 2015 tournament they were hosting.

At that point, England were ranked eighth in the world.

When Jones was appointed as the new coach, he brought the whole squad together into a room and said: ‘In four years’ time, we will be going to the world cup in Japan as the number one ranked team.’

Nobody really believed him, says Hartley. Why would you? It seemed impossibly remote from where they were then.

But Jones was relentless.

He set demanding targets. He made the players work harder than they’d ever worked.

When one player made a five-hour trip to England training after a club match, Jones asked him how he was feeling.

‘A bit tired’, said the player.

‘Tired players are no use to me,’ said Jones and sent him home.

That may sound harsh, but it’s an example of what real clarity looks and sounds like.

As Hartley explains:

‘Language is very important to Eddie. He doesn’t want to hear anything that sounds like weakness, because it opens the door to the possibility of failure. He wants you to be utterly focused on achieving your aim.’

As Jones’s captain, it was Hartley’s job to bring that same clarity and focus into the changing room conversations and team huddles.

Gradually, the belief began to shift and the performances began to improve – culminating in a dominant victory over the previously all-conquering All Blacks that booked England’s place in Saturday’s final.

They didn’t win that final, of course. As Hartley readily accepts, they were ‘beaten by a better team on the day.’

But England turned up to the match as the number one ranked team in the world. Just like Eddie Jones said they would, four years ago.

That’s what real clarity does for you.