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Four Strategic Guidelines

November 7th, 2019

I was recently helping some clients think about strategy. As part of the training, I tried to convey a number of guiding principles, which often prove useful in developing strategy. Consequently, I thought I would share some of them with you, in the hope that they prove useful when you next embark on developing a strategy.

1. Strategy can be Simple

Strategy has a reputation for complexity and being difficult. The cynic in me feels such a reputation is, in part, generated by the consultancy industry, to justify why their expertise is required. While many look to key strategic ‘thought leaders’ for guidance with their strategy, I believe one of the most useful strategic frameworks comes from the author of The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling;

‘I keep six hoest serving men (They taught me all I knew);

Their names are

What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who’

To invoke Baloo the bear’s advice to Mowgli in The Jungle Book, strategy is about the ‘bear necessities’. It is about being clear on the key ‘Ws’;

  • ‘Why do we do what we do?’
  • ‘What positive difference do we make to society and how can we increase it?
  • ‘Where are we now?’
  • ‘Where do we want to go?’
  • ‘Who do we need to get us there?’
  • ‘How much will it cost and how long can we give ourselves to get to where we want to go?

It’s also crucial to be clear on ‘What is strategy?’ and ‘Why do strategy?’, but sign up to a training course, or wait for a future blog, if you want clarity on these particular ‘Ws’!

2. Focus on Decisions Rather than the Plan or Process

You’ll note that all the ‘Ws’ above are listed as questions. That is no coincidence. Strategy is all about making decisions. It’s about deciding how best to achieve your overarching goal, or to fulfil your organisation’s vision. Consequently, your strategy will almost certainly benefit from improving the quality of your individual and collective decision making.

Sadly though, many people rush straight to a strategic framework/template and then focus purely on completing its relevant sections. Instead, I’d encourage you to consider some key precursors such as:

  • Who should be in the room when you do strategy?

Strategy is situational. It depends on your own organisation’s circumstances and what’s going on in both your direct environment and the wider world. A balance needs to be struck between a sufficiently large number of people to give diverse perspectives, to reduce the likelihood of strategic blind spots, and a small enough number of people so that timely decisions can be made.

Consequently, there is no ‘right’ number of people. However, two rules of thumb that can stand you in good stead are:

(i) Ensure at least some of the people who are going to be ‘doing the doing’ are involved. (ii) Remember that everyone likes to be heard (even if they are not agreed with).

  • How can we minimise flaws and embed good practices in decision making?

There is a significant amount of research which highlights common flaws when making decisions. There are also some tried and tested techniques for making good decisions. The links below provide some insight into both:

Testing Your Decision Making

Making Great Decisions

As referred to in the first link, remember to feel as well as think. A strategy should excite, or at the very least satisfy you. So, in addition to analysis, be sure to tap into your intuition.

3. Embrace Assumption and Improvisation

Assumption

While the process for developing a strategic plan lies outside the scope of this article, do remember that, regardless of the particular process you use, it should include some degree of analysis and experimentation. This is because I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s been able to articulate where they are now and where they want to go, without some sort of analysis/experimentation.

In my experience, analysis and experimentation can often create the most angst and fear during strategic planning. It is the strategic equivalent of the social condition, FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. There are endless analytical frameworks and experiments you could employ, so doing them all would mean spending all your time analysing and experimenting, rather than actually implementing the strategy. However, if you can’t do them all, how do you decide which ones to do?

In my experience, the best strategists deal with this reality by being hypothesis driven. They discipline themselves to generate:

(i) The 1 minute ‘answer’

Then (if it’s worth pursing) the:

(ii) The 15 minute ‘answer’

Then (if it’s worth pursing) the

(iii) The 1 hour answer

Then (if it’s worth pursing) the

(iv) The half-day answer

and so it goes on.

The alternative, to do every piece of analysis/experiment fully, would simply take too long.

In my communications training I often state that:

“Assumptions are death to great communication.”

In strategy though, I find assumptions are essential – as long as you’re clear on the assumptions you’re making and how they will be tested.

Improvisation

The other key to successful strategic analysis and experimentation is improvisation. I’m often struck by the reverence with which analytical frameworks are viewed, and the subsequent reluctance to adapt and alter them. Given the situational nature of strategy, I believe there is always value in considering how a particular framework can be adjusted to best cater for your specific situation, or what you believe to be important.

To illustrate, a framework that I have personally adapted is Jim Collins’ ‘Hedgehog Concept’. The concept was born out of Collins’ research on the characteristics of consistently successful organisations. The term ‘Hedgehog Concept’ is a reference to Isaiah Berlin’s essay, ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’. Berlin divided the world into two groups, based on an ancient Greek proverb, which pitted the two animals against each other. He characterised foxes as pursuing many ends at the same time and seeing the world in all its complexity. They are scattered and never integrate their thinking into one unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single principle that guides everything. When faced with challenges, the hedgehog only focuses on things that relate directly to the unifying principle. Consequently, when foxes and hedgehogs are pitted against one another, the hedgehog always wins.

Collins claims that all consistently great organisations exhibit the ‘Hedgehog Concept’. In practice, this means that they operate in the ‘sweet spot’ of what they are passionate about, what they can be excellent at and what will make them enough money. Anything that lies outside the intersection of these three things should be of no interest.

This links back to one the fundamental ‘Ws’ I mentioned at the start of this article:

‘Why do we do what we do?’

I personally believe that a fourth circle needs to be added to Collins’ concept – ‘service’. To me, service means operating in a way that is enriching to staff and society as a whole. This therefore requires a focus on:

(i) The organisation’s physical and cultural environment, so that staff can bring their best selves to work

(ii) How the organisation contributes to enhancing social justice and social capital

(iii) Minimising the negative environmental impact of its operations

While mch’s ‘Hedgehog Concept’ creates a smaller sweet spot, decisions can become even clearer and, in my experience, life becomes all the sweeter for it!

4. The is no one way

As alluded to above, strategy is situational. Consequently, I do not recommend any particular strategic framework. I have developed and implemented strategic plans which are many pages long and include numerous pictures, case studies, charts, graphs, bullet points and action plans. I have also developed and implemented a plan that was hand written and covered two sides of A4. Both were equally successful.

I am comfortable with the format of any plan, as long as it clearly conveys:

(i) Why you’re doing what you’re doing and why it has value

(ii) Where you are now, where you want to go and why you want to go in that particular direction

(iii) A plan of action and how the plan will be reviewed

Furthermore, the best strategists I know have several formats for their plan. They know the strategy is likely to be shared with different audiences, so they tailor the format to give each audience what they want and need. They are also able to tell their strategy as a narrative. They appreciate that people remember stories far better than bullet points and graphs. They also know that stories tap into emotions which are more powerful motivators than pie charts. Furthermore, they understand that, unless they can explain their plan to a lay person in simple, compelling terms, then they’re not clear enough on it themselves.

I hope the above principles prove useful. Do let me know about any frameworks you’ve modified, or even created, to best serve your strategic endeavours.

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A Primer on Sleep

August 22nd, 2019

“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”

Homer, The Odyssey

‘A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.’

Irish Proverb

The Impact of Sleep

I’ve been fortunate to interview consistently successful people across an array of specialisms: organisational leaders, scientists, teachers, sports men and women, soldiers, actors and musicians. A practical characteristic they almost all shared was a focus on getting a good night’s sleep.

This finding is increasingly being backed up by scientific research. While there are some well publicised examples of high achievers claiming to need only four or five hours sleep per night, research suggests that the vast majority of us need seven to eight hours of quality sleep.

In her book, The Source, Dr Tara Swart states that:

  • A disturbed night’s sleep can reduce your IQ by 5-8 points the next day

While such a reduction is not enough to inhibit your ability to function, it’s unlikely to lead to your best work.

More starkly, Swart highlights research indicating:

  • An entire night’s disturbed sleep (e.g. taking an overnight flight) can reduce your IQ to a level akin to being drunk the next day

In addition to IQ, Swart stresses the replenishing/cleaning impact of sleep and its importance in reducing the risk of dementia. A video summarising Tara’s work can be viewed by clicking here.

“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.”

David Benioff, Writer and Director

A lack of sleep can also lower your body’s immune system and start to impact on your mood/what you focus on. An interesting piece of research highlighting the latter, involved a memory test where participants were asked to remember sets of emotionally positive neutral and negative words. Participants who had a poor night’s sleep were able to remember 40% fewer words relative to those who weren’t sleep deprived, but they remembered far more negative words than positive ones. (1)

For me, the result suggests the evolutionary importance of sleep. A lack of it poses a risk to survival and puts our brains on alert for danger, hence the focus on the negative, rather than the positive.

“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”

Thomas Dekker, Actor

For all these reasons, sleep is increasingly being prioritised by those wanting to stay resilient and particularly those with management and leadership responsibilities.

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.

Ursula K. LeGuin, Author

For many, there is no great secret that needs to be discovered in order to get a good night’s sleep. The key is not so much gaining a new understanding to the practice of sleep, but strictly practicing your existing understanding.

Consequently, adhering to the following rules is often enough to get a good night’s sleep:

Challenges

Significant events e.g. having a child, going through a divorce, facing a bereavement, or a particularly stressful period at work can lead to sleep problems; even if you strictly adhere to the above ‘rules’. Generally though, when such events pass, or become manageable, good sleep returns. For an unlucky few though, sleep can remain elusive, even when the above are followed and no major events are being faced. If this is the case, there are four steps I’d suggest taking:

(i) Seek expert medical advice to rule out potential medical conditions

You may have a medical condition e.g. vitamin deficiency or sleep apnoea that is causing your sleep problems.

(ii) Explore whether your mind has become ‘wired’ for a lack of sleep

I’ve known people who have gone through such a long and sustained period of stress, that sleeplessness has become a habit and they have convinced themselves that they are a ‘bad sleeper’. In addition to the above ‘rules’, such people have often found that relaxation exercises, mindfulness or neurolinguistics programming (NLP) techniques have also been required. In severe cases, where trauma has occurred, exploring therapy and counselling options has also been required to bring about change.

An increasingly common issue I see in my coaching and mentoring work is that the gap between one particularly stressful period at work and the next is becoming shorter and shorter, until work is consistently very stressful. Unless the person’s perspective to stress can change, the harsh reality is often that either the workload needs to change, or the person needs to change jobs.

(iii) Investigate whether your body needs realigned

Sometimes, there’s a physical explanation for poor sleep. For example, if your pelvis, back, shoulder or neck is slightly out of alignment, then lying for long periods can readily become uncomfortable, no matter how good your mattress. Such discomfort leads to you waking up, without always being consciously aware of the discomfort and thus able to connect it with your sleep problems. An initial consultation with an osteopath should identify whether such an issue exists and subsequent treatment can readily realign your body so no discomfort arises during sleep.

Many who solve their sleep problems at this point can often trace back the beginning of their sleep problems to an accident or injury (e.g. a car crash, sport injury). However, this is not always the case.

(iv) You may be part of a special minority

If none of the above apply to you and you are not suffering from having less than six hours sleep a night on a consistent basis, then you could be one of the small minority of people who don’t require as much as everyone else. In which case, don’t worry about and use your extra time wisely!

“If you can’t sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there and worrying. It’s the worry that gets you, not the loss of sleep.”

Dale Carnegie, Writer and Consultant

A Note on Gender, Aging and Sleep

The menopause for women and an ever increasing prostate in men can lead to sleep problems as both genders age. Although medication exists to tackle some of the symptoms of both conditions, efficacy can be mixed and these areas would appear under-researched.

Further Reading and Viewing

In addition to exploring Tara Swart’s video and book which is listed above, the following research may be of interest:

The Work of Satchidananda Panda and The Salk Institute

The Work of Michael Breus

The above links give heavy reference to circadian rhythms, which is the natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. Panda’s work looks at the interplay between sleep, diet and exercise, while Breus’ research is an update on the view that some of us are ‘larks’ i.e. morning people, while others are ‘owls’ i.e. are most active in the evening. Respecting the circadian rhythm, recognising our specific preferences and adjusting our routine accordingly (when you can), often proves another important step in improving our relationship with sleep.

Sleep tight!

(1) Walker, The Role of Sleep in Cognition and Emotion, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156, 2009

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An Acronym for LEAD

May 13th, 2019

At a recent conference, the social entrepreneur, Carol Akiwumi, gave a session on Transformational Leadership. In her talk, she used LEAD as an acronym to highlight the key qualities she believes are required for leadership.

L E A D

L is for Learn and Leverage

Great leaders appreciate that there is always more to learn and that they are never the ‘finished article’. Consequently, they are feedback hungry and retain an appetite for development.

They also appreciate that they cannot do it all on their own. Consequently, their most important decisions are people decisions. They recruit, induct and retain great people and embrace the practice of delegation.

E is for Embrace and Empower

Leaders embrace change (as it is inevitable). They also embrace risks and mistakes on account of them being essential for development.

Great leaders also empower others to embrace change, risk and mistakes too.

A is for Authenticity and Action

Great leaders are comfortable in their own skin. They share who they are as people.

Great leaders also promote a healthy urgency for action.

D is for Diversity and Drive

Great leaders delight in difference. Consequently, they are careful not to recruit in their own image and embrace the positive tension and variety of perspectives that comes with a diverse team.

Great leaders also connect their values to their work to create sustainable drive and motivation. They are also masters at helping others to connect with their intrinsic motivations.

What would be your acronym for LEAD? Please let me know by clicking on the ‘Comments’ link below.

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Applying Pragmatism and the Pareto Principle to Mentoring

February 28th, 2019

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the UK (NCVO) recently announced that it was closing its Approved Provider Standard for mentoring schemes, stating it was unable to make the programme both rigorous and affordable. Such a decision was not a surprise to me.

To obtain the standard, an organisation had to meet 10 key requirements through external assessment. An outline of the 10 requirements can be found on NCVO’s website. While a strong case can be made for why all 10 requirements are worthy of analysis, it is easy to see why rigorous assessment of them all could become financially prohibitive for many charities.

More generally, I believe the nature of mentoring poses particular challenges for assessment and evaluation. These include:

• Duration

Mentoring relationships can last months, if not years, and the impact of mentoring can last long after the relationship formally ends. Obtaining baseline data and capturing the longitudinal impact of mentoring is therefore a significant undertaking.

• Breadth of Impact

The scope of mentoring can encompass the whole life of a mentee. Evaluating such breadth constitutes a significant undertaking. Furthermore, the benefits of mentoring can extend far beyond the mentee. In addition to the mentor, the mentee’s and mentor’s friends, family, peer group, staff and organisation may all benefit from the development that mentoring brings.

• Numbers

The process for matching mentees with mentors can limit the scale of mentoring, and programmes involving as few as seven or eight mentoring pairs are not uncommon. With such small numbers, the vast majority of participants need to be evaluated for results to have any degree of statistical significance. This can make evaluation work harder and more intense.

Such factors can lead to assessing a mentoring programme’s quality and impact costing more than its delivery costs. This poses a difficult dilemma, in an age where there is ever increasing scrutiny on charity spending and an insistence that donations have the best possible impact.

So what can be done? For me the answer is pragmatism. With limited resources I would focus on impact and, despite the aforementioned breadth of mentoring, I would prioritise outcomes that are of most value to the mentees, as ultimately mentees are the focus of mentoring. Interestingly, of the 10 requirements assessed for the NCVO’s approved provider standard, only one looked at outcomes. In my view, a greater percentage of resources should be assigned to assessing impact.

Undoubtedly though, how a programme is run provides the foundations for impact. In keeping with the theme of pragmatism, I’d invoke the Pareto Principle to assess a programme’s operational aspects. The Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, essentially states that you get 80% of the impact or output from 20% of the input. It is a ‘rule of thumb’ that applies in a great many areas e.g. if you analyse a charity’s income, you’ll often find that 80% of income comes from just 20% of donors. Alternatively, if you analyse sales, it is not uncommon for 80% of sales to be generated by just 20% of the sales team. Essentially, a small number of factors have a disproportionate impact.

Within a mentoring context, I consider there to be three factors that have a disproportionate influence on success:

  1. Securing Great Mentors
  2. Ensuring a Shared Understanding
  3. Incorporating Choice and Time into Matching

Securing Great Mentors

In my experience you need three things to become a great mentor: time, skill and motivation.

(i) Time

Mentoring, like any relationship, needs nurturing and nurturing takes time. Consequently, mentors must know the time commitments up front and feel able to meet them. I wouldn’t underestimate the power of putting pen to paper in this instance e.g. asking mentors to sign a ‘commitment to expectations’. Furthermore, if the expectation is that mentoring takes place during normal working hours, a commitment from the mentor’s organisation is crucial too.

(ii) Skill

A mentor programme should aspire to have great mentors. With such an aspiration, it is only fair that mentors are trained in the skills required to be a great. I believe such training should be compulsory. If a mentor does not have the time to commit to training, it poses questions as to whether they have the time to mentor. There are also ancillary benefits to mentor training. For example, training can prove an effective means of thanking mentors, as good mentor training should prove useful to mentors in their everyday lives, not just for mentoring. Furthermore, training can establish a supportive peer group, which can serve mentors well for the duration of the programme and beyond.

(iii) The Right Motivation

Great mentors give of themselves, with no expectation of anything in return. In reality, the mentor often gains just as much from mentoring as the mentee. However, it’s the mentor’s mindset of ‘being there’ purely for the mentee, that makes mentoring such a special relationship. How do you test for such motivation? The aforementioned requirements help: clear time commitments and compulsory training often filter out half-hearted applicants. Simply asking mentors to explain their motivations can also be very instructive. Applicants can be surprisingly candid and hopefully you can appreciate why the following replies to the motivation question gave me cause for concern:

‘I’ve been told I need to strengthen my CV by adding some voluntary experience.’

‘In my appraisal, I was told I was a terrible listener, so this might help improve my skills.’

Ensuring a Shared Understanding

It is crucial that both mentors and mentees have a shared understanding of what mentoring is and what it is not.* Both parties should also be clear on the practicalities of the programme e.g. what it provides and how long it lasts.

Such things may seem obvious, but they are often overlooked. Don’t assume that because such things are clearly explained on the application form, website, programme guide etc., that they will have been read and understood by all participants. You often need to see the ‘whites of the eyes’ of participants and check for understanding face to face. This brings us to the third and final contributor to success – matching.

*Note: If you’d like to increase your understanding of mentoring, more information can be found on mch’s website.

Incorporating Choice and Time into Matching

There is no one way to match mentors with mentees. Each programme can pose specific constraints with respect to what is possible. However, in my experience successful approaches to matching share two characteristics: choice and time. Both mentors and mentees have a degree of choice in relation to who they want to be matched with. They are also able to spend some time with potential matches, before stating a preference.

Given that mentoring is first and foremost a relationship, this should come as no surprise. You may not have participated in mentoring, but if you’ve ever recruited for a role (or tried internet dating!), you’ve probably come across someone who seemed great ‘on paper’, but not in reality. The same can happen in mentoring, which is why choice and time are so important.

Summary

In summary, if you focus on securing great mentors, ensuring a shared understanding and providing choice and time for matching, you’ll be setting the foundations for mentoring success. You can also continue to be pragmatic by learning the finer points of mentoring from programmes that have been evaluated and assessed thoroughly. The NCVO still lists organisations that have gained its standard, so a quick chat with any one of these organisations may prove a very good use of half an hour. mch has also evaluated mentoring programmes in its time and a detailed evaluation it conducted can be found on its website.

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Prioritising Perspective in Tough Times

November 20th, 2018

Balance is a word that comes up a lot in mch training. This is because mch’s training aims to improve performance and I have found that a common trait of the consistently successful is that their lives are relatively well balanced across a variety of areas. Balance is particularly relevant in mch’s resilience training, which is an increasingly popular training topic. The resilient are invariably able to balance a number of complementary traits, e.g. they are reflective while also being very able to stay in the present. They focus on quality thinking and also readily tap into their emotions. They have high aspirations whilst being content with ‘enough’.

It is important to note that applying such traits does not immunise you from adversity. There can still be tumultuous times when nothing appears stable and despite your best efforts, life does not seem balanced.

After a recent run, the act of stretching provided an apt analogy, not only for the struggle for balance in tough times, but also for how best we can meet the challenge. Have a look at the following video:

As someone who normally has good balance, I was struck by how difficult it was to do so in this position. Nothing seemed stable or still: the sand was moving from under my foot and the sea was moving around my ankles. Looking out, the boats were continually bobbing up and down and even when I tried to focus on the horizon, it was usurped by the continually moving clouds just above it.

In an analogous way, there have been times in my life when it seems that nothing is stable and nothing can be relied upon.

However, take a look at the next video:

I am in exactly the same spot on the beach. The only difference is that I have turned 180 degrees and am now facing the shore. Doing so has allowed me to focus on a rock above the tide line, and it is now much easier for me to maintain balance. There is now stability in my field of vision, even though the world around me is exactly as before, and I am still impacted by many of the same issues e.g. moving sand under my foot and moving water around my ankles.

So the message here is that in tough times, prioritise perspective. Where you focus your attention is key. Even in tough times, if you position yourself wisely and are disciplined about where you direct your attention, you will hopefully find at least one ‘touch stone’. For me, a ‘touch stone’ is anything that provides stability when so many other areas of life are in flux, or under strain. Common ‘touch stones’ are particular people (a friend, partner, family member), an activity you find enriching, or simply a reminder of some fundamental realities, e.g. I am healthy. I live in safety. I have enough food to eat. Sometimes, the reason for one’s difficulties is that something, or someone, that you considered a ‘touch stone’, is now in flux. However, in my experience, it is very unlikely that all your personal ‘touch stones’ will simultaneously become unstable.

So in tough times, prioritise perspective, know your ‘touch stones’ and focus on the ones that restore as much balance as possible.

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