Books and learning

Over the past few weeks I’ve been gradually moving my ‘business books’ into the office. I operate a lending library (and have for a number of years) where anyone can borrow a book if they

i) promise to return it

ii) leave it for me to put it back in its proper place (they are classified by interest/area and then broadly by thematics within that, I’m a geek)

I’ve had a few books go missing over time, including a couple that had sentimental value, so there has been a cost. Also books are heavy – so it means many mornings of carrying a very heavy rucksack to work – my aching back is current cost.

The benefit is that I love being surrounded by books and I love helping others either learn or just enjoy. I also think that books help build relationships – you have shared mental models and stories that can be shorthand for explaining situations. Our comms lead has just returned a book, then followed up with an email full of ideas they would like to test. That is the kind of thing that really brightens my day – and all I have to do to enable that is have books about.

My default position on the often asked ‘Who is responsible for people’s development in work?’ is that as a bare minimum the organisation is responsible for signposting the opportunity and making it accessible. A big pile of books and an email to colleagues to say ‘help yourself’ covers that off.

I don’t read enough these days. Or I read less. And I was pondering on how when you have read past a certain point concepts simply become an amalgam. I don’t know (sometimes) whether what I’m saying is something someone told me or I read or I’ve experienced. Recently I’ve taken on some business areas that I’ve had less direct experience with – and I find myself revisiting techniques and analysis that I can’t remember the source of at all. Frameworks out of thin air.

Early in my career I could remember which author gave me which insight. Now my mind is a jumble sale of concepts and I often ponder as to whethermy beliefs are a patchwork quilt from that jumble sale – fragmented and largely unplanned.

Books remain beautiful to me. I’m not fussed about whether you are using a kindle or picking up a hardback – what matters is that you are open to new ideas and concepts and that you never lose that love.

Books are cool.

Convenience will prevail

One of the most important elements of the way we think and choose is that our stated long term preferences simply aren’t always aligned with our immediate actions. I’ve just been reading a piece on the future of gaming services and it contains a CEO stating “Convenience will prevail”. There is a worrying and profound truth bundled in those three words.

I’m sure that as you are reading my blog you must be a wonderful person. You do the right thing. You stand up for the weak whenever you can. You challenge inequality every single day. You are an ethical consumer. Any excess income gets diverted to worthy causes. You eat healthily. You make sure you follow the news so that you don’t accidentally watch a film that might tacitly show support for abusers. You keep a balanced view on things and avoid faux outrage (or even judgment) until you possess all the facts. I get that you are great.

I guess the problem must be everyone else because it seems that we have a combination of short term thinking and convenience driving aspects of our group behaviour from tech choices right through to climate change that leaves us in a very tricky place.

I see people trying to do right – yet I see our aggregate societal movement too reflective of convenience rather than the ‘right’ that is described. It’s tricky. It’s particularly tough to know how much leeway we can afford in order to indulge ourselves now without understanding the future cost – that cost that accrues to ourselves and generations to come. It’s tricky and it’s challenging and hard to work out.

So I’m going to have a sausage sandwich and just sit on the sofa for a bit. I guess convenience will prevail.

How to listen to a conference speaker…

Over the past couple of years I became a thought leader. It’s scary stuff because you don’t really get to opt out in the way you might think. Last week I received a book from someone I have never spoken to and the letter inside read ‘Dear Thought Leader’. Apparently you are appointed to that status with scant regard to your intent.

I speak a lot about the future of work and what worries me is that when I do so I explicitly start by saying the following

  • I’m not a thought leader
  • I’m not a futuristorologister (or any variant)
  • I’m a person armed with what I think are some useful questions for people to ponder
  • I’m probably going to be wrong about stuff
  • I want people to do their own research and thinking

Despite my entreaties it seems my sheer presence and charisma can be distracting to people and they listen to me like I know stuff. If I’d ironed my shirt in the picture above I could quite plausibly be someone who knows something.

It worries me because if you are listening to me when I’m specifically telling you that I don’t have the answers then I’m really worried about what you do when someone convincing and confident bounds around a stage telling you ‘the one thing you need to know about x’.

So here are some tips on how to listen to conference speakers

  • Reflect on why they are on stage in the first place. Are they there to sell you a book or product? Do they want to be consultancy solution to the problem they are telling you they have? Were they booked for expertise or bums on seats?
  • Watch out for humour. I use it a lot to engage people but it can also disarm people and if you don’t have some mental defences up then nonsense can enter your head unchallenged. I probably cause that unthinkingly
  • Think about what the person is trying to get you to think. Are they taking you down a sneaky road to one inescapable conclusion – or is there really a rich exploration of the subject matter. Do they give options?
  • DYOR – do your own research. I see alleged top level speakers passing off urban legends as research
  • Separate anecdote and data
  • If they ask you to commit ‘to do one thing to do when you get back to your workplace’ then commit to doing more background reading on the subject that includes diverse viewpoints and counter arguments
  • If you think ‘that’s an amazing stat’ check the source before you base anything on it

Now you don’t have to listen to my advice above, but have a think on it…

Also some tricks of the trade to look out for

  • Speaker says ‘We all know this, right?’ and you feel obligated to agree and they then get to base the rest of what they do on that agreement
  • A large portion of the speech given to one inspiring story that isn’t necessarily translatable to other situations
  • Confidently talking about the realities of leading teams/being part of a culture when it has been a decade since they had to deal with the reality of it…
  • People assuming context skip is possible (this worked when I came 9th in the Olympics so your Board should work that way too)
  • Big headline figures in large type flashed up behind the speaker
  • Any speaker who won’t leave time for a Q&A or only replies to questions with answers from their book rather than reflecting on the question
  • ‘Research shows’,’We all know’, ‘We know from science’…
  • ‘I spent some time with SexyMegaCorp’ and I’m dropping that name as I know you’ll be impressed, feel you are in the presence of a higher being and turn off your brain and defer to me.

Fish where the fish are #CIPDLD18


I don’t care for your technical language. It has no interest to me. I care for your technical expertise that can help good things happen. I don’t pay you for an invitation to tour your world. I pay you to step into mine.

What do I see

A few weeks ago I spoke to someone who couldn’t get their senior team to back their wellbeing strategy. The senior team were, apparently, just not enlightened enough to recognise the importance of wellbeing. The senior team were, instead, too busy being worried about their teams being pushed to the brink and the danger of burnout and turnover.

I know…

As far as I was concerned the senior team knew what was going on and wanted a solution to a mutually identified problem. They just didn’t care for a conversation about an HR initiative or the dressing that they were being offered. A clear invitation to work with them on wellbeing was there – if they didn’t want to call it ‘wellbeing’ then quite understandably that was their right. It was also the least important thing going on.

They pay for help in their space. They get to choose the language. If you want to call it wellbeing behind the scenes then that’s your choice.

In L&D I’ve seen similar inclinations in the past

“The senior team want to mentor people on X”

Desirable response: Yay, how can we support that?

Actual response: Are you sure they don’t mean coach? We better explain the difference or the organisation is surely doomed

“The senior team want an away day”

Desirable response: I’m glad they want to invest time in their development, we can find a way to support that

Actual response: Didn’t they read our learning strategy where we talk about 70:20:10. Fools. I mock them from on high.

Any invitation to the party should be welcomed. If you want to work in partnership with people in an organisation – and not be somehow special and apart – then contact on their terms matters. If someone you want to get to know asks you to a party the correct response isn’t to say ‘In my expert opinion you are really talking about a get together’. It’s to ask ‘Sure, what can I bring?’

I’m writing this after seeing some exchanges from our Learning Development show yesterday where people were (healthily) challenging the language used within L&D. Making things accessible matters. Making a difference matters. The language probably only matters to practitioners, not beneficiaries. I’m not saying it is never useful, I am saying it should never get in the way.

Fish where the fish are. Don’t sit by the side of the lake shouting at the fish that they just don’t appreciate how much better it is where you have chosen to sit.

Single action bias and HR

In response to uncertain and risky situations, humans have a tendency to focus and simplify their decision making. Individuals responding to a threat are likely to rely on one action, even when it provides only incremental protection or risk reduction and may not be the most effective option.

People often take no further action, presumably because the first one succeeded in reducing their feeling of worry or vulnerability. I’ve seen this happen. This phenomenon is, apparently, called the single action bias Source

(please note I can only find one reference to this, so do your own research if you’d like it to form the basis of your next big life/work decision).

I spent half a day this week taking some colleagues through what I called an ‘Introduction to an Introduction to OD’. We covered some of the intent, some of the terminology and a couple of useful models for helping understand culture and organisations. The most important thing for me to convey was probably the sense of interdependency between different elements of an organisation. If you change an element in isolation it has often unanticipated ramifications. If you fail to think of the system when making a change you will be successful only if lucky.

If you ask someone what change they would like to see in an organisation – and ask them to think what they’d need to do to make that change happen – then one of two things tends to emerge

– they go high level (or vague) with no further support for their position and often stop slightly defeated (‘the culture just needs to change’)

– they go low level (‘we’ll change the process and then people will change their behaviour’)

Their answers often amount to ‘we will do x and y’. Even for desired significant organisational change people often identify just a couple of things to change (often structure or a process) and then stop.

I can understand why.

When you are attempting something significant, maybe something that takes some bravery to deliver, it is easy to think about that one tricky thing is possibly more than can be reasonably expected of you. That bold step can be hard to contemplate in itself.

However it’s rare that anything succeeds in isolation and it’s rare that the thing you change is likely to be the only thing that needs to change to bring improvement. Indeed changing anything in isolation of the broader leadership or environment is often superficial or doomed to fail due to social pressure and expectation trumping your process change.

So keep asking ‘And what else would need to change?’.

Keep asking until you are sick of it.

Keep asking until you have a plan that covers as many elements of the organisation’s make up as possible.

A series of interdependent and supportive moves. A plan so wide ranging that it can’t help but succeed. That’s what you need – not one single action, but the much tougher one coordinated plan.

The Organisational Trailer

The trailer is not the story. The story can’t just be the trailer.

When I was younger you only really saw trailers for most films in the cinema. They were a treat. They tended to be quite short and designed to not give anything away. The concept of the release of a trailer being an ‘event’ is a uniquely modern one – with fans and critics alike examining extended trailers that hint at major plot points or climactic scenes. Indeed the director of the new Star Wars film has actually suggested that fans should consider not watching the trailers at all for fear of spoiling the movie.

The interesting consequence of this level of interest is that, increasingly, the sizzle of the trailer is creating unusual side effects. For instance the trailers for Rogue One and for Justice League both contain scenes which bizarrely aren’t actually in the final movie. You are watching snippets from a film to get you to watch the film that, confusingly, aren’t in that film.

In the case of Suicide Squad rumour has it that so much effort was put into getting the tone of the trailer right that a completely disjointed film was the result. The focus on having funky introductions for a range of characters that would play well in trailers left a fragmented and unfulfilling movie. The problem wasn’t just that the best bits weren’t only shown in the trailer; arguably they were the reason for the rest of the movie being worse.

There is a cautionary tale here about allowing yourself to be distracted from the whole by needing to present parts well. We see it in organisations – and I also see similar from suppliers – that the whizz bang organisational trailer doesn’t match the real end product.

When we buy tech we end up being told that what we saw in the demo isn’t quite in the live version – or not for that price. Indeed I spoke to an organisation recently who have made a massive investment in a system and now feel misled by the reality – despite doing everything sensible in the purchase process. But now they are committed. They bought the ticket and the popcorn and drink and it’s too late to go elsewhere.

When we advertise roles we give them the trailer treatment – snapshots of the awesomeness of working here. Except people aren’t just signing up for the trailer – they are signing up for the Peter Jackson extended version with near infinite extra scenes.

So remember that we are in the business of making movies. Stories that need to command people’s attention over time. Not shallow adverts to fool them into buying.

The trailer is not the story. The story can’t just be the trailer.

Swimming Shorts and Unbeaten Runs

Someone once said to me that you can lower your expectations in different circumstances, but your standards should remain the same. It was during the last recession – and their theory was that at the point you blame the external environment for your performance it is tempting to let all blame fall on that environment: to become expectant of failure and therefore lower standards.

It’s OK to lower the expectations, but not for that to poison your standards. They suggested the only thing you could do was keep your focus on what you expect from people in terms of input – but understand that the output might drop.

They talked about a hotel chain that had in the annual report at the time of the Gulf War a comment that results were perhaps down due to apprehension about travel. That statement remained in there for a decade as it became a locked in excuse for poor delivery. Performance fell because standards were allowed to become informed by lazy expectations.

Manchester City and Celtic football clubs have both recently lost football matches to end long unbeaten runs. The thing is that there is an element of chance in what we do – even if a team is 95% likely not to lose a match you would still expect it to lose 1 in 20. It’s just chance as to when that 1 game in 20 arrives.

Neither club could plan to go a whole season unbeaten – you can only make sure you are preparing to compete as best as you can. I try and set my standards high for my teams – but the expectations can vary. Everybody needs to know what good looks like, but they should also know that sometimes stuff is out of your hands. But your input is always in your control.

It’s too easy to focus on outcome and lose track of what people put in – you can win a football match because you got lucky. You don’t win them consistently without exceptional standards.

I remember seeing Malcolm Gladwell speak years ago and he described the financial crisis like this ‘When the tide goes out you can see who has been swimming without shorts’

Always wear shorts. That’s the standard.