Business lessons from The Wonder Stuff

The Wonder Stuff
The Wonder Stuff (Photo credit: ibison4)

Yesterday a random chat between HR folk struck up about The Wonder Stuff and how we were all big fans. When I was in my teenage years I was a huge fan and I went to see Miles Hunt play a few years ago and he is still superb. When you are in your teens the lyrics to songs mean a lot to you – with the hormones raging, the world broadening and a strong need to identify and rebel at the same time you find meaning where you can.


Now I’m so very old I look back on those songs and see meaning for organisations, not just individuals. I’m sure the songs were always written to be more personal – but the good thing is growing up now means I find my meaning in the people around me – never a bad thing.

Song: Grin

Lyric:- You’ve got no hope for the future, so stop looking for somebody else to blame

Sometimes things just die. Professions, roles, organisations. This is the way of the world. Darwin and others clocked this hundreds of years ago. It is the way of the world to renew. So when you reach the point that clinging painfully onto the past (whilst firing broadsides at others) seems like your best course of action .Give it up, move on, grab onto the future and hold tight. The past won’t take you anywhere, neither will knocking those who you might need in the future.

Song: Unbearable

Lyric: I didn’t like you very much when I met you (and now I like you even less)

Throughout my career I’ve seen people who have been hired due to technical competence, despite the fact the interviewer didn’t ‘click’ with them, didn’t quite ‘get’ them, didn’t like ‘something they can’t quite put their finger on’. There are two things going on here – the first of which is the importance of cultural fit. It really matters who you elect to let join your organisation – they don’t just do stuff, they interact with other people who do stuff. The second thing is that you should always challenge your gut reaction – but also listen to it. Challenge it so that you are not avoiding diversity of background or opinion – listen to it because it is saying something, you need to know what that is.

Song: Caught in my shadow

Lyric:  These streets used to look big, this town used to look like a city, these people used to talk to me 

When you get promoted everything changes. The dynamics of relationships in the workplace are to a degree defined by hierarchy. Suddenly you have access to information, meetings and networks that you didn’t have previously – but you also lose something on the way up. You aren’t part of the same team in the same way. Hold onto those relationships, don’t let the upwards movement go to your head, but understand that whilst you may not want things to change they already have. Your job is to convince people that whilst your title may have changed you haven’t

Song: Circlesquare

Lyric: the circle doesn’t fit its little square, it bulges with opportunity

There are benefits to structure, but one of the drawbacks is that the more you draw a box around a person and put a label on it, the more your perception of them depends on not who they are but where they sit on an org chart. Your best people will be pushing at the sides of boxes all of the time, wanting to bust out of the ugly container you’ve put them in and to make a difference elsewhere. Spot it and help it. Otherwise they’ll go and find somewhere to work that is less confined.

Song: Give, give, give, me more, more, more

Lyric: I hope I make more money than this in the next world

I’m a big fan of growth. The job of any business is to grow, but the worrying thing about growth is that it nearly always causes pain. I read a lot of books on economics, as it helps me to stay fun at parties. The natural consequence of economic growth is more disparity of wealth, the natural consequence of increased disparity of wealth is more people feeling worse about their relative position. Our obsession with wanting more and never being satisfied has left us in a constant state of not being quite there. Chances are for most of us we will die before we do get there. So I hope you either make more money that you currently do it the next world – or that you learn to value what you have now.   Maybe some of us should be hoping for less growth if that means less disparity…

Song: Full of life (Happy now)

Lyric: if you spoke up now would you tell without the lying, or are the answers laced lies to hide your pain. Are you happy now?

I’ve written before about people rationalising their own role in events, giving a generous assessment of their own starring role and motives. It is rare that we are able to just answer the question ‘why did you do that?’ with ‘because I selfish/stupid/crass/unthinking’.

We tend to opt for thinking of the most favourable interpretation of why we might have done something. If you want to get better as a person (and arguably in business) you need to be able to speak about yourself without entertaining that lie. You need to be truthful about the fact that, occasionally, you are the villain of the piece.

Ask people you trust ‘was I a muppet?’ if they so ‘no’ then ask again. It they then say ‘well, a little…’ then you know you were a raging muppet.

Song: It’s yer money I’m after, baby

Lyric: I’m sticking with you and that’s just because… it’s your money I’m after baby

Try and minimise the number of people saying this in your company. Not through an employee engagement initiative or anything complex like that, but through being a better company made up of better people with a better sense of purpose. People need money, but if it is the only reason they have to be with you – you’ve failed.

Song: On the ropes

Lyric: I can’t kick aside, a kick inside

It’s always personal if your decision involves people – unless you are Michael Corleone. And even then the memories of your business decisions haunt you to your grave. People, please don’t think that because you had a good reason to kill Fredo it wasn’t going to impact you. If this makes no sense to you then go listen to The Wonder Stuff, whilst watching The Godfather trilogy

Song: Sleep alone 

Lyric: I still sit at home, twitching my fingers, playing the songs of my favourite singers. Easy then, I’m easy now

Someone said to me last week that I had never grown up. They meant it in a positive way. I try and stay curious and open. I took it in the manner intended and grinned. My wife agreed with the diagnosis.

I used to be able to play a whole range of the songs mentioned here on the guitar. I now have a daughter approaching 4 and the time for indulging myself in anything apart from family seems a long time ago. So now my fingers are twitching over a keyboard, writing about the songs of my favourite singers. No matter how much changes, some things stay similar and familiar.

Why I don’t hate HR

I’m writing this because Neil Morrison’s last blog covers some of the same ground in a different way and the comments struck a chord with me. If you only have time to read one then I’d suggest reading his.

Last week I was lucky enough to be asked to speak on a panel of ‘experts’ about the future of HR. The question was actually ‘is there a future for HR?’. I was on the panel with senior individuals from two multinational firms. I said the following things that passed the lowest benchmark of wisdom – being tweeted by others.

Towards the end I told the room that businesses deserved better HR departments and there was an unusually high volume of approving noises. My overarching point is that as the world becomes more nimble and companies rise and fall faster there is no place for bureaucracy. We are about enabling growth – not keeping things safe. We are not policymakers, but business shapers.

The issue isn’t about people not understanding balance sheets – the issue is that if you don’t understand how businesses grow you aren’t in a position to help them grow. ‘Why haven’t HR embraced social media more?’ I was asked. The answer is half the profession haven’t got their heads around Excel yet. The world has outstripped our progress – as an aggregate – and we are playing catch up.

Nobody invites people to the toptable who simply want to tell you what you can’t do. They invite people who are part of the team of doing.  At the end of the debate I was approached by two groups of people (it’s lovely to be popular).

Group 1 – people who work in businesses – they told me their HR departments were slow, burdensome and obsessed getting in the way. They were relieved that some people in HR also agree. They shared tales of sheer, utter frustration.

Group 2 – people who work in HR – they told me it was unfair of me to write off a whole profession. I didn’t write off a whole profession, I was encouraging people to up their game to meet the standards set by some in the profession. It’s like saying that showing a photo of Pele to children when they are learning football is somehow a criticism of the children.

Someone telling you that you can be better is either giving you more space to play with or is an attack, but it depends on your mindset. We have too many people seeing forward movement of others as an attack.

The best question came from the audience ‘if the gap is so big, what do you do with those who can’t make the jump?’ The answer comes in two parts

  1. I believe in the ability of people to change and improve and grow. That’s why I do what I do. So I’m not writing off as many people as you may think. I’m telling them they need to change or become relics
  2. I believe that we should be no more protected in HR than any other part of the business. If someone in IT doesn’t fancy keeping current then they cease to become employable. We have people denying the march of progress. The thing about market economies is that you don’t get to decide your own value – other people do. If you stay still you get left behind.

That isn’t a criticism. That’s life. That’s progress.

I like to think of the best organisations as helpful. Places where someone can tell you that you need to improve something and you understand that intent. For a profession that spends a celebrated amount of time wondering what we are supposed to do I offer you this thought

‘Make businesses better’, not ‘make them less bad’

That will look different for different businesses and different phases of growth, but if you don’t get up in the morning and try to do that you are holding everyone else back. And they will eventually just let you go.

Bagpuss – energy and leadership

*This is the first of a number of blogs that I’ll publish in the run up to New Year on subjects suggested by others. I had two measures of worthwhileness in my head when I started blogging. The first measure was a number (that I passed last week) the second was feedback from people saying posts had been helpful. I’m delighted to have met both targets and to be seeing out the year with guest topics. The first of these is on Bagpuss, suggested by Kate Griffiths-Lambeth*

Bagpuss (Photo credit: diamond geezer)

I have a sketchy memory of Bagpuss. I know I enjoyed it as a child, but when I was challenged to write a blog on it I confess I had to retreat to Wikipedia and Youtube to help refresh my memory.

First observation – the nature of knowledge

I don’t know how much information and which experiences I’ve forgotten because of the passage of time – and how much I have forgotten because it is so easy to access information today. My daughter remembers things because of the instant access to photographs that she has. We now have the ability to keep the events we want to alive and vivid, by replaying them again and again, whilst deprioritising memories that we know we can access through other means (Wikipedia etc).  Since the time of Bagpuss the value and nature of knowledge has changed. The nature of education is therefore inextricably altered for all time. For those of us lucky enough to live through this period it is a thrilling rollercoaster of change, but it is my daughter’s generation that will be the first to be genuinely be able to make sense of and use of the technology to its fullest.

The knowledge you need now is in three tiers of usefulness

  1. Most useful – knowing a network of people who know where to access the information you need
  2. Useful – knowing where to access information (less useful than above, as network beats individual)
  3. Least useful – knowing things – it has immediacy, but you are incredibly limited in your capacity

This is a brave and counterintuitive new world. The smart people aren’t the ones who know Latin. The smart people are the one’s who know they can go and learn other things and gain new experiences – because Google translate can take care of the rest. We are our own personal librarians, the challenge is to index – not to read and remember.

Second observation – the importance of an organisational Bagpuss

I remembered Bagpuss as being lazy. At the start of every episode we see a shop. Everything is static, the episode opens with Bagpuss giving a big yawn. Lazy.

Except that Bagpuss waking up is the key for everything to shift from black and white to colour and for things to start moving. Everything comes to life when Bapguss wakes up, Bagpuss is the instigator. Bagpuss is an energiser. He may be relaxed, but others follow his prompting and intent.

Be a Bagpuss. Bring colour and stories to those around you – in the office and out. It isn’t about you being the life of the party – sometimes it is just enough to have soul.

PS – I published this early and by mistake, it’s known in the business as ‘NeilMorrisoning’. If you were after my blog on Indiana Jones and The Big Bang Theory you’ll find it here

Raiders of the lost point

The Big Bang Theory is a comedy centred around a group of scientists. It’s more fun than it sounds and it provides a geekiness I find attractive. Last week’s episode kicked off with Raiders of the Lost Ark being ruined for one of the characters by his girlfriend pointing out that Indiana Jones has no impact on the outcome of the film. It was a good film, but Indiana didn’t add much to it.

Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the absence of Doctor Jones the following would still happen. Ark is found by Nazis. Nazis open the Ark. Ark destroys Nazis.

This wonderful and counterintuitive insight that the hero of one of all time classic movie adventures makes no difference to the actual outcome of the entire movie is worth us all reflecting upon.

We follow Jones through a series of adventures, witness him evade death from giant boulders, make charismatic one liners and seemingly drive the whole plot of the movie. Except he is really having his own adventure that isn’t impacting the overall big picture that much at all.

It made me reflect on those days at work when I’ve felt that I have won every battle, vanquished every foe, dramatically avoided the traps set for me around the workplace and been every inch the hero. Then I went home for tea.

So here are a few questions for you to check you are gauging the contribution of you and people around you effectively

  • Did anything actually change due to your incredible efforts to get that person in the project meeting to agree they may have failed to review action point 3.1.2 from last week’s meeting?
  • If you were off sick on any given day how much would the destiny of your company have been altered?
  • How much impact do you actually have on a day to day basis? Be honest now…
  • Are there people in your office being held up as heroes due to their charisma and dramatic interventions rather than their results?
  • Did someone save the last project you were on quietly and without anyone noticing?
  • Do you have the right role models? Or do you look at an individual’s style rather than substance?


Tribes and Dr/Doctor

Recently I went to see a Dr Who movie at the cinema. It might actually be called Doctor Who. I’m not really sure and that was part of the problem.

I went to see it because I had never been to see a movie at the British Film Institute in London and I quite fancied collecting that experience. There was a chat on Twitter about it and I like Dr/Doctor Who, so I thought I’d give it a bash.

When I say ‘I like Dr Who’ I really mean that. I settle down to watch it with my wife and some Pringles on Saturday nights. If we miss an episode life goes on. My wife and I have an informal arrangement that if I meet one of the assistants in real life I am allowed to marry them. I can’t name episodes or characters and I don’t watch spin offs or get magazines.

If Dr Who were to clash with Spurs playing or Wales in the rugby – no contest. I’m watching sport.

So I turned up at the cinema and saw the following things

– An unruly crowd, turning ugly at the prospect of not being able to get their tickets quickly enough to catch the movie
-a grown man swearing loudly and repeatedly, after he had failed to persuade someone that I couldn’t recognise to give him an autograph
-almost everyone except me had a uniform. For some this was explicit, tshirt or long scarves – for others it was more a subtle uniform that meant you could pick them out as a type

I thought ‘it’s OK, watch the movie and scarper. You don’t belong here’.

I settled down in my seat and then an hour long panel discussion on ‘Dr Who the wilderness years’ started . People whooped and cheered at the group on stage. I had no clue who they were.

At this point I switched my people watching mode on and noticed a few things

– I saw these people as sad lonely Sci Fi outcasts with a minority passion. In fact I was the outsider who didn’t belong
-their passion was genuine and their enthusiasm wonderful to watch. It reflected badly on me that I was so cynical about it.
– I resented being the outsider. That was what was leading to my sneering and unfair judgement. I felt out of place in the environment and was desperately reaching for some kind of superiority to justify it

I’m not saying all this translates straight back to work – but it was a magnified version of what happens in life. We dismiss that which we don’t feel part of.

I put my preconceptions to one side and listened to the panel debate. I enjoyed it. Then I watched the film. I enjoyed it. Then they announced another panel debate and I thought this is getting ridiculous and left.

A glimpse into someone else’s world is intriguing, educating and energising. It doesn’t mean you need to live there but it does mean you are more likely to appreciate it.

PS – Now with added Simon Heath genius

The Imposter

During the the past week I have had more than one person congratulate me on how good I am at networking and self promotion, citing the success of the book as an example of this. I thank them for that, I really appreciate the time and thoughtfulness behind it.

I’d like to level with you all. I’m rubbish at networking and self promotion. I simply can’t do it. I feel uncomfortable and slightly like an imposter. At a recent event someone asked me if I was a consultant. My reply was ‘um, I guess so, I mean…technically…people pay me to do stuff, so I guess I’d have to say I was, but I’m not sure I’m a proper one or if it will last’.

Yesterday someone asked me what my areas of expertise were for a speaking engagement. My initial response was ‘I’m interested in lots of things, I’d hate to claim to be an expert’

These aren’t the responses of a natural salesperson.

From the very first black tie networking event I attended in my career I’ve felt inadequate, out of place and about to be found out. So I found ways to make the experience more comfortable.

i) I find one person who I know (or who also looks lost) and I talk to them about whatever they like

ii) I try and help them with a problem if I can – I listen and try to be useful to them

iii) I assume everyone has an interesting story to tell

iv) I open up early and ditch the formality. I’ll talk really honestly with people

So I mentally exchange my forced black tie event for an evening doing what I love – learning about people and helping them solve their problems. Last week that led to me getting a visit to Facebook, a wonderful experience. I’m happy to admit it came about through me just wanting to find someone to talk to at the CIPD Centenary Dinner, primarily so I didn’t feel like a spare part.

The volume of PR around the book has been based around not letting 50 other authors down. If this was my book that I’d written on my own? There is simply no way that I’m spending days tweeting people asking them to endorse it. That is a horrible concept to me. I’m not brave enough and it’s not in my nature.The fact there is a social ambition to it and an ability for me to create success for others is what drives my behaviour.

All the good stuff that people think is me being brave is just me running scared from failure and awkwardness. I’m not leading, I’m just finding the most creative way I can to run away.

This will probably be a problem for me if I continue to be a ‘sort of consultant’. I’m not comfortable at self promotion. I’m comfortable with sharing. I thought I’d share that in case anyone feels the same way.

So I’m sharing that if you feel awkward with self promotion – well, there is at least one other person out there who feels the same way too.

#CIPD13 – Celebrations and frustrations


A long time ago my HR dept used to do ‘celebrations and frustrations’ each week. Everyone would send in an email listing their work/experiences and then this would be circulated to keep people updated.

What tended to happen, all too often, is that the busiest people didn’t find time to fill it in, felt they didn’t get appropriate recognition and got progressively grumpier. That is why HR is tough. Designing systems around people is complicated.

Anyway, I’m stealing the format to do a quick overview of #CIPD13. Most of the bloggers have written beautifully reflective pieces. Welcome to my bullet points


  • As a networking opportunity it was incredible. I went to Facebook today and I’m off to Innocent Drinks soon. These opportunities came as a direct result of the event.
  • My love of Dan Pink is well documented. I was lucky enough to see him twice during the conference and to take part in a Q+A with him. That was an exceptional opportunity and he genuinely engaged
  • I got to see an overview of the Crossrail project that really helped me reflect on how much work can mean to people
  • I dropped into plenty of the sessions in the main hall and enjoyed the variety and content. Great, short sessions
  • I got an hour with the CIPD CEO and then another hour with the Deputy CEO. They were open to challenge (which was good because I challenged) and the debate felt worthwhile. They listened. I realise this contact time was atypical of most delegates experience, so it feels important to note the time they gave to random people like me
  • The CIPD were very gracious in supporting the book – still available to buy.

I met some great people and shared in their energy and enthusiasm. That’s always the standout isn’t it…


  • The opening keynote was flat. It really disappointed me and felt slightly shallow and by the the book (and very ‘buy the book’). I’ve seen the speakers before and they were ten times better when I did. I would have far preferred to hear more from Peter on his thoughts about the profession
  • More CEOs or people who are ‘not HR’ would have been great. HR is business, more people from the broader business would have been useful.’My HR team did this and this is what it did’.
  • I agree with Sukh Pabial about the lack of diversity in the speakers
  • The hack update was great in terms of content from the hackers, but the whole process feels a bit slow and not action focused enough. The hack model is about design – real life is about implementation and momentum. A lot of people signed up for the Hack – I’m not sure how many have been retained
  • I heard some really closed thinking from people, including a horrible description of how different generations learn (‘older people just want to be talked at in classrooms’)
  • I heard some really risk averse responses to ideas. It’s seemed unless an idea comes gift wrapped people won’t run with it. How would that work in your organisation? Well, that is something you are paid to work out. I get that we need to manage risk, but we also are in the business of growth and that involves encouraging risk.
  • It would have been great for the main sessions to be more interactive. If we are updating on the hack then… let’s hack. Send people away to discuss Dan Pink – do things to involve the audience. One person speaking to several hundred has less benefit than hundreds exploring a concept. If a group of HR people designed an internal event it would never be this formulaic. More on the fringe, more interaction, more involvement, more commitment, more exploration = better results

A few notes to give context on the above.

  • As I tweeted and blogged for the CIPD I didn’t pay to enter the event. I’m probably biased and they did provide me with biscuits which increases the probability of this further
  • I’m not a member of the CIPD, I never have been. If I’ve been positive about them it’s due to them deserving it
  • I attended a range of events across the 2 days and thoroughly enjoyed the evenings