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/

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.

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.

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.

Where’s your genie?

Everybody knows the story of Aladdin.

Orphaned Arab street urchin finds magic lamp, gets three wishes from powerful genie and (through innate decency and ingenuity) triumphs over evil sorcerer to win heart of princess.

That’s the Disney version, anyway. The original story went a little differently.

In the original version, told to French writer Antoine Gallant in 1710 by a Syrian traveller, Aladdin was not an Arab. He was Chinese.

And he wasn’t an orphan. He was the lazy, self-absorbed son of a merchant, who despaired of his ne’er-do-well offspring and his feckless ways.

There was a genie. In fact, there were two: the genie of the lamp and the genie of the ring – neither of whom put any upper limit on the number of wishes Aladdin could claim.

And he did get the princess. But only because he used the power of the genie to spy on her while bathing, then interrupt her wedding and cast her husband-to-be (by all accounts, a very decent fellow) into a frozen wasteland, while he took the princess for himself.

In other words, not quite the Disney hero – more a rather creepy chancer.

My point is not to highlight the variations in the story. My point is that the variations don’t really matter.

Because the thing that makes the story compelling is the idea of having extraordinary supernatural powers that can make your every wish come true. That’s an idea guaranteed to get people talking (‘Hey – if you had three wishes and you could have whatever you wanted, what would you wish for…?’)

This is why the story of Aladdin has remained so popular with writers, film-makers and pantomime audiences for hundreds of years. And why you find variations of it in so many different cultures around the world.

It’s an example worth remembering next time you’re helping your CEO prepare for his management conference keynote – and he’s still agonising over the wording of the fourth bullet point on slide 27.

You and I both know there is not a chance in hell that anyone in the audience will remember what that fourth bullet point says (and, frankly, very little chance they’ll still be paying attention by slide 27, anyway).

In other words, the detail doesn’t matter.

He’d be better off ditching 26 of those slides and focusing on the one element of his story that is so compelling that it’s guaranteed to get people talking.

Aladdin’s magic lamp. Or John Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’. Or Martin Luther King’s dream.

Of course, we also both know that, when you strip away the detail, there’s a good chance the story that’s left will not be very compelling. No magic lamp – just a slightly dull change programme that will mean a lot more work for everyone in the short term.

But just imagine how much more effective that change programme would be if you could persuade the people at the top to step back from the detail and focus on creating a story that would get people talking.

If I could offer you three wishes right now, wouldn’t that be one of them?

Is this the world’s most valuable picture?

Yesterday was the 214th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, arguably the most important naval engagement in British history.

The night before the battle, Admiral Nelson invited his captains on board his flagship, HMS Victory, for dinner.

As the main course was being cleared away, he gathered them all round to outline his battle plan, which he sketched out with the few quick strokes of his pen that you see here.

The sketch was designed to illustrate a simple, but incredibly important point.

Instead of sailing in a line parallel with the Franco-Spanish fleet and simply pounding away in an exchange of gunfire (the orthodox naval tactics of the time), Nelson wanted his ships to sail straight at the enemy, break their line and engage them at close quarters.

It was risky, but it was also the only way to achieve a decisive victory. Sticking to the rule-book would be unlikely to give either fleet much of an advantage. Whereas getting in close would allow the superior seamanship and gunnery of the British crews to come into their own.

The stakes were high: if Nelson failed, the one obstacle preventing a French invasion of Britain would be removed. On the other hand, a decisive victory would give the British naval supremacy (in those days, as significant an advantage as air supremacy is in today’s conflicts).

Success depended on his captains understanding what they had to do and executing it perfectly.

Nelson knew that the best way to explain it was to draw it. If he’d just used words, his officers would have heard him, but might have assumed that they’d misunderstood, because what he was saying was unusual.

Whereas, when they saw the picture, his captains got it immediately. They followed the plan and it worked: the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was comprehensively routed.

Britain had established a dominance of the seas that would last for the next hundred years and make her the richest, most powerful nation on earth.

It’s an object lesson in the value of being able to explain an idea visually.

At the height of its Empire, in 1860, Britain accounted for a staggering 47% of all global trade. (To put that in context, today’s most dominant trading nation, China, accounts for around 17%).

Britain’s trading dominance was only possible because of the Royal Navy’s absolute control of the seas.

Which, in turn, was only possible because of Nelson’s visionary sketch.

Which makes that sketch worth around 50 trillion dollars in today’s money.

Eat your heart out, Damien Hurst.

 

 

If you can remember it, you weren’t there…

This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival – widely regarded as one of the most important musical events of all time.

Woodstock allowed people in Vietnam-era America to believe another world was possible. It defined a generation and became a catalyst for a different way of thinking.

It brought liberal ideas into the mainstream, as people who’d spent their lives cast as outsiders suddenly realised there were plenty of other people who felt the same way they did.

Of course, that’s not how everybody experienced it at the time. In amongst the dewy-eyed reminiscences of peace and love, you’ll find descriptions of 15-mile traffic queues, basic sanitation that was quickly overwhelmed by a crowd ten times larger than anyone had anticipated, scheduling delays, sound problems – and a devastating storm that ripped through the festival on Saturday night and turned the field into a quagmire. If it happened at Glastonbury, people would be wanting their money back.

So it’s probably just as well that the song which best articulates ‘the spirit of Woodstock’ was written by someone who wasn’t actually there.

Joni Mitchell was supposed to be playing a small set at Woodstock, but her manager, terrified that the traffic gridlock would disrupt a scheduled TV appearance, made her pull out. She wrote the song ‘Woodstock’ in a Manhattan apartment.

David Crosby (who was at the festival and later became one of 347 artists to cover the song) described Mitchell’s song as ‘the perfect description’ of what Woodstock represented, rather than what it actually was.

When Crosby, Stills and Nash released their version of it, it went straight to number one – alongside the three-hour film of the festival, which filled cinemas up and down America, as an entire generation suddenly wanted to be a part of what was becoming a cultural phenomenon.

So, when baby boomers talk about Woodstock, they’re not usually talking about the festival itself. They’re talking about the spirit of the festival, as articulated in the song and the film.

That’s the thing about change. When you’re experiencing it, it often feels difficult and uncomfortable and chaotic.

Which is why, sometimes, you need to just take a step back and make sense of it. If you can do that, if you can articulate the change in a way that captures what it means, why it matters and how it feels when it’s at its best – that’s when you’ve got a chance of making the change stick.

If all anybody remembers is the mud and the traffic jams, you’ll never change anything.

When gestures trump words

Whatever else you may think of Donald Trump (and, let’s face it, even by his standards, he’s had a bizarre couple of weeks), it’s hard to deny that he’s an effective communicator. A large part of that is to do with the way he uses his hands.

The BBC made a short film about it when he first won the Presidency, which you can still find online.

The key point is the way he uses big, vague, airy movements, to characterise his opponents’ policies – then follows up with very precise, focused gestures to characterise his own. ‘Chaos’ versus ‘clarity’.

What’s interesting is that, even though a lot of what he’s saying doesn’t stand up to robust intellectual scrutiny, it doesn’t matter – because most of the audience is more influenced by his hands than by his words. His gestures make people believe him.

‘Wow’, they think. ‘This guy really knows how to cut through the bullshit and make stuff happen.’

Now, I’m not suggesting Trump is a leadership model you should copy. But I do think there’s an important lesson in this for all of us – and last month’s Harvard Business Review includes an interesting piece of research to back it up.

Joep Cornelissen is a Professor of Communication at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

He and his team contacted a large number of established investors and, posing as entrepreneurs, asked if they could send a video pitching a new piece of medical tech.

They sent out four different versions of the video, all featuring the same ‘entrepreneur’ (actually a Dutch actor).

Version one used a lot of figurative language to describe the new invention.

Version two included regular hand motions to help explain the idea.

Version three used both.

Version four used neither.

The results were striking: investors who watched version two of the video were 12% more likely to invest than any of the other groups. In other words, when you’re pitching an idea, gestures matter a lot more than what you say.

This was not what Cornelissen and his team had been expecting. Given the widespread reliance on analogies and storytelling when pitching ideas, they’d assumed use of language would be key.

In fact, the investors said they had a much more tangible sense of what the product was, and how it would work, when they saw the hand gestures. It reassured them, in the same way Trump’s audience is reassured by his repeated ‘wave and pinch’ gesturing.

The trick, it seems, is to use gestures selectively. Not just waving your hands all the time, but finding one or two killer gestures that lend weight and conviction to your key points.

Of course, it’s also important to remember who your audience is – and what they’re likely to be focused on.

When Cornelissen repeated the experiment with his students, he found they were much more likely to be swayed by the figurative language, because their primary interest was to understand the idea. Whereas investors are more interested in understanding the person pitching it: Do I believe them? Am I confident they can deliver?

A point worth keeping in mind for any CEO with a change agenda they need to engage their business with.

People can’t score if they don’t know where the goal is

The American business magazine INC asked executives in 600 companies to estimate how many of their employees would be able to name their company’s top three priorities.

Their average estimate was 64%.

When INC then asked employees in the same companies to name those priorities, only 2% could do it accurately.

It’s a reminder that most businesses are a lot more complex than their leaders realise.

They have too many priorities – and those priorities change frequently and often contradict one another. Which makes it very hard for anyone outside the leadership team to know what they should be focusing on.

Businesses that win are the ones that find a way to simplify the complexity and make it easy for people to know the right thing to do.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)