Phil's Blog

Looking at things through the lenses of moderation, noble purpose and more

Making the hard stuff easy?

Improvement, Personal productivity, TeamsNo Comments

You have probably come across the business adage, “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”. Like a number of famous quotes, is not quite clear to me who first coined the term – there is quite a lot on it online. But was it Covery? Enrico? Anyhow…

When thinking about organisations I like the distinction between structure, process and behaviour.

In one meeting last week I was challenged: “so, are you an organisational behaviourist?” Normally, I prefer to use Edgar Schein’s language and see myself as a ‘helper’ – and not even an OD specialist or Change Manager, which LinkedIn endorsements tend to say I am. So, I wasn’t sure I wanted the Organisation Behaviourist tag. But I guess I am the OB title. I see behaviour as key for it provides the physiology of organisational life – ways of working that can make any ‘anatomy’ work, or not. If I ask people to think of a leader they admire or a team that is performing well, and then write what it is about them down that impresses them, it is clear that the vast majority of the positive attributes are attitudes not technical skills, behaviour not knowledge.

There are some notable approaches to orchestrating behaviour shifts through ‘nudges’. Also, there is lots of training offered to change behaviour – from ‘difficult conversations’ to ‘line management’ to ‘team working’.

For me, the most significant improvements in organisation come from a disciplined focus on behavioural improvements around R and E in FRE – that is ‘responsibility’ and ‘example’. But I know from my work that the ongoing curiosity and empathy that is needed for this sort of sustained shift isn’t easy to generate and maintain.

A recent HBR study shows that even the most thoughtful training approaches bring about minimum behavioural changes long term, in the absence of a shift in the example of senior leaders. This makes sense – at least it confirms the finding from my decade-old research about getting values into practice, see this.

So these ‘soft’ shifts are hard. That is clear.

On a recent trip to Australia I saw a new way of promoting a long lasting shift in the culture of organisations in action. I saw it at work in settings as diverse as a bank, a commonwealth department and in a food manufacturing plant. The ‘Blue Bus’ approach started out in steel manufacturing and mining. It is spreading. It is a sticky idea. There is a pull. It seems to be passing the Chili Test. It makes the distinction between ‘hardware’ and ‘software. Between the ‘spaces’ leaders regularly ‘play’ like strategy, tools and systems and the area that is really needed for individual, team and organisational performance: mind-set, values and behaviour.

If you are in Asia or the Pacific (or even Australia!) and want to find out more, do let me know – I can make an e-intro. As there is deliberately almost nothing about it online. And, looking ahead, the guys (in a gender neutral sense) will be over in Europe in 2017.

Does your idea pass The Chilli Test

Front foot, ImprovementNo Comments

At the end of the Fifteenth Century the America’s were accidentally (re)discovered as a world of tremendous resource, including maize, potatoes and tobacco – products that have altered lives around the world. However, part of the story is of a two–way exchange between the old and new worlds with chickens, bananas and coffee going the other way too, for example.

And all this was in addition to the older trading routes into Asia and Africa. At the time Columbus was trying to find the western route to the orient, the price of black pepper from Asia was at an all-time high and the Ming vase trade was starting to inspire the wealthy and their local potters in Europe.

We think that we live in a connected, global world. I was in rural Malawi recently I was struck how many people who in many ways live life ‘off the grid’ have smart phones and how 3G is pretty ubiquitous – with WhatsApp replacing SMS. A recent National Geographic piece outlined how a little up the Rift Valley the Maasai are using this technology to enrich their lives, to meet a need.

Whilst the speed and scale of these changes is breathtaking, I think we have to go back 500 hundred years for the most remarkable story of ‘spread’ (not the sort you have on toast – but of knowledge).

One of the discoveries in central America was the humble chilli. These days we see spicy chilli’s everywhere: in European, African and Asian cooking – as well as in dishes from its home continent. I think it is probably the most ubiquitous of ingredients. It literally connects the world, cuisines and diets.

What is maybe surprising is it took only a few decades from discovery to global domination. At the time it was discovered many could not afford black pepper to liven up their dreary meals. Spicy hotness was a luxury. All of a sudden there was a new, cheap form of heat and flavour. This product spread the world. And it wasn’t just a spicy idea, but a ‘sticky’ one too – the product is still totally ingrained globally.

At the airport shop in Blantyre, Malawi there were only a few products for departing visitors to spend their remaining Kwacha on – from nuts to ‘Puffs’. One of the goods was Nali Chili Sauce: made from birds-eye chilli’s it is dubbed “Africa’s hottest sauce”.

So the chilli travelled the world. It dominates. It is possibly the most global product . Why?

It met a need. It offers the spice of life – cheaply.

So, does your big idea meet a need? Is your ‘change programme’ (or political view or belief system or business offer – or blog!) going to help others live and improve their lives? Is it affordable or does it have a burdensome cost? Will people want to ‘steal with pride’? Is there are a pull?

Or are you just pushing like mad?

Being Human in The Age of Extremes: Pausing to see the other side

Front foot, Improvement, ReflectNo Comments

What makes us human?

  1. The ability to tell stories that make sense of our lives?
  2. The (potential to have a) conscience?
  3. The way we organise to do ‘projects’ from farming to hobbies to start-ups?
  4. But also ‘othering’ – that is the way we pretty naturally like to put all we see and meet into groups and make those good or bad, helpful or harmful, right or wrong, hero or villain. ‘The other’ is frequently given less positive characteristics, though sometimes (for example in the case of celebrities, especially national treasures), they have a sort of saintly halo.


This final characteristic or seeing putting something in a neat box and labelling it positive or negative extends to the black and white thinking we see in the anxious debates of our age, including:
• Refugees and migration
• Junior doctors strikes
• Nationalism in Europe and the US
• Trident
• The Union
• The various issues and groups who Donald Trump targets
• Trophy hunting
• Sugar tax
In all of these a circle tends to be put around those with a different view and then there is a judgement that makes them and their ideas wrong.  We see it from our Facebook pages to Front pages.

The news media and social media coverage of all these stories polarises views. Advocates of a particular viewpoint tend to sound as if the argument is very clearcut; they know the answer – and it is in their direction.

So if being human means we have a tendency to seek tribal certainties, what makes us civil is, I believe, stepping back from quick scapegoating…seeing the other side, disagreeing well, looking at what is fact from the story and considering the alternative stories.

However, I agree that in a way I risk ‘circling’ those who are certain and making them wrong! Yet, this desire to see the other side is more of a habit I practice than a belief; a discipline more than a personal value. I find it as easy to label and judge as anyone else, but reckon that learning to challenge those tendencies (as I look for information to challenge my assumptions and confirmation bias) is pretty important in my life and work.

And the more I think about the stuff that occupies the pages, screens and chat in my life the more nuanced the ideas seem. I realise ‘IDK’: I don’t know.

As I explore the gospel of doubt in the age of anxiety I discover I need to continually practice ‘holding my beliefs lightly’. Yet, I regularly need to form a view and make a judgement. I need to vote. I need to advise a client; to call time in a meeting. I need to act.

So what makes us human? Pausing. The potential of a momentary pause to consider; what else might be.


Further reading:
Meaning of Life is a project
National treasures
• Projection, scapegoating, splitting
WITOS and perspective managment assessment
• From other peoples skin (shoes, eyes)
Holding our beliefs lightly
• The Gospel of Doubt and questioning the ‘bricks’ on which our beliefs are based
The Age of Anxiety


Are you FREe?

Checklists, Front foot, Improvement, Organisations, Reflect, Teams, Think, ValuesNo Comments

Earlier this week I attended a concert at Kings College Chapel. As I sat there in the dark stillness a storm raged outside that rattled the ancient doors as a nearby college clock chimed the hour. I recalled how exactly 27 years before I had first been in that place.

I remembered I had been a little shocked to find myself in higher education – as a working class lad who struggled a fair bit at school. Yet in my mid 20s I had applied to study at tertiary level. When interviewed, some of the alternative angles I shared from my experience as a front line NHS worker, plus the insights from my union activism seemed to appeal to those who selected students.

Over the years I have found sitting in that building to be a powerful place for reflection during times of significant personal change.

So, I was thinking – but on this occasion about my work. My studies all those years ago were the start of my deeper interest in how organisations perform (or don’t). Over the last few months I have been crystallising what I now know about institutions – from larger networks to smaller teams, from commercial enterprises to noble purpose initiatives – based on my experience of working across sectors and continents. What makes an organisation worthy of commitment? What are the features that make them likely to succeed? And fail?

After a quarter of a century, I think there are just three things that are crucial. I summarise these with the word FREe (actually FRE, as you will see below).

Firstly, FOCUS. Is the purpose of the organisation shared? Is the strategy clear – is it understood? Has the governing group set out its intentions (and limitations) for the wider staff to work toward and within? Do individuals know how their particular role contributes – and do they realise where their personal motivations fit, and where they do not?

RESPONSIBILITY: are staff expected to use their initiative to sort out issues? Do they have freedom to act? Do governing boards avoid overstepping the mark and resist micro-managing the executive – and do line-leaders avoid constraining their staff with overly detailed instructions or the expectation of involvement in all decisions? How clearly are all staff held to account for how they have used their autonomy?

Crucially, EXAMPLE highlights the role of senior leaders in setting the cultural tone for an enterprise plus the part played of line managers in re-iterating this – and the importance of peers in reinforcing the ‘right’ behaviours. Most of us are not saints or sinners, rather we absorb the ways others work. This extends from basic ‘pro-social’ interactions to do with decency and civility through to the modelling of focus and responsibility and other important attributes like curiosity. ‘Example’ also concerns how the implied attitudes at the core of a business’s purpose are demonstrated by staff in their dealings with each other as much as with customers: be that caring in the case of health services, learning for an education provider or speed for a high street fashion brand, for example.

I am discovering how this simple framework is powerful in a range of settings.

It helps individuals: it is useful in ways from coaching leaders through to prompting those being interviewed for new jobs to ask useful (and interesting) questions.

With teams it is a checklist to test that the platform for achieving positive results is in place.

For organisations it highlights three important factors to work to get right in all places – to ensure well-served customers, content staff and a fulfilled mission.

Are you ready for FREe business?

The Gift of Happiness? The Single Surefire Way To Be Happy: Give

Checklists, Front foot, ImprovementNo Comments

It is already early November. Despite the unseasonably warm weather in the UK, we are firmly moving toward the festive season; though I spotted the first Christmas merchandise in the stores by late summer.

The holidays and the associated greeting cards are increasingly branded as time for those of all faiths, and none: “Happy Holidays!”

However, there is a common denominator that unifies all traditions. From the biblical exhortation that ‘it is more blessed to give than receive’ to the eastern emphasis on developing and practising compassion. Even the self-help industry chimes in agreement. In the happiness movement we hear that giving to others (of your time, money, skills) is the surest way of living a joyful life.

If you look around there are lists and lists of things to give up to discover a more contented life. However, when considering the most respected checklists for happy living the emphasis on serving others jumps out. Paradoxically possibly, we are told that when we give up the sole focus on trying to make ourselves happy and consider on what we can do for others, then that is the moment that we are most likely to discover joy for ourselves.

Do you want inspiration and encouragement to help in this gift focused stance?

The story of ‘Join Me’ from Danny Wallace and the associated global movement for RAOK – Random Acts of Kindness are entertaining reads.

And in mid-January a bunch of musicians are getting together in Cambridge to do a few things:
1. Remember how important mental well-being is, and how hard that can be for some to achieve, especially in the dark of mid-winter, a few weeks after the fun (and disappointments) of the festive holidays.
2. Put the spotlight on a number of good causes – charities that are looking for support.
3. Bring together a load of different people for a good time – and also ask, what can you give, this year, right now?

Interested? You would be very welcome. Have a look here.

What DEE-cisions?

Do, Improvement, Meetings, Organisations, Reflect, TeamsNo Comments

Imagine the scene. A producer pitching the idea for a film: in Africa, people are living insecure and impoverished lives; thousands of people decide to start an exodus to Europe; they walk and walk and walk, and they talk to the media covering their movement – “we are poor because you are rich”; those in the North are fearful of the mass migration from the South.

The surprise about this film? Well, firstly it is has already been made. By the BBC. A long time ago. In the 1980s a pitch something like the one imagined above actually happened. ‘The March’ was made with leading figures in front and behind the lens. It was broadcast over 25 years ago.

Even so, the surprise is not that it was so prophetic – the story remains prescient.

Rather, it is striking that the film is almost totally forgotten. It has never been repeated. You can’t buy it online – even through the BBC bookshop. It has just about disappeared, other than a couple of YouTube clips, for example.


This film was an insight – into insecure lives and the challenge of economic development.  Today, in our work (and lives) we are offered insights all the time. Sometimes our colleagues or bosses or contacts expect us to act.

We have four options in any situation:

First, we can IGNORE the information and time to decide.

Or, we might DO something. Possibly instinctively.

These are the two main responses. Both can be due to cognitive biases. The complexity or anxiery might just be too much for our busy life – so we ignore it. Or we are a bit discombobulated and just want to do something – so we rush to action.  Either way, we may (over) rely on our intuition.

Or possibly we want to take our time. Our third option is EXPERIMENTATION. We might want to give something a go. We might wish to try something out.

The fourth and final possible choice is EXPLORATION – wanting to find out more, or reflect.

When viewers saw ‘The March’, my hunch is most ignored the implications. Maybe it seemed too fanciful. Or worrying. Some probably signed up to the campaigns for third world debt relief that were popular at the time. Others maybe chose to give supporting a particular charity a go. Some others might have decided to read more about the issues and think about how best to respond.

In our organisations we can manage our DEE-cisions by:

1) being totally clear of the criteria for ignoring a topic or possible choice. Maybe it is the responsibility of another group. However, ignoring should be used sparingly.  Often issues that are important are not on the radar. Methods like ‘scenario planning’ help shift some issues from being tuned out to ones that have further effort put into them – i.e. making the shift from ignoring to exploration or maybe even experimentation.

2) Deciding and acting is important for progress. Even here, ‘do and review’ is both poetry and philosophy. When will you take time to see if your ‘no-brainer’ decision had indeed worked?

3) Setting up some trials is at the heart of experimentation. What ‘improvement cycles’ or ‘prototypes’ can you try? The 90 day cycle is really valuable – what will you take stock of in a Quarter? Or 30 days? Or even after a week? This tweet remains a very popular tool for managing this spirit of trial (and error) and taking stock.  Experimentation builds momentum.

4) I do believe in the ‘art of procrastination’ in decision making – and this is where exploration can really come in.  The ‘art’ thing is the difference between ‘ignoring’ and ‘exploring’ – the difference between unecessary or unproductive delays and choosing deep, insightful thought. Keeping an eye on a topic or deciding to come back to an issue before making a decision can very helpful – or it can be avoidance. A symptom of a troubled group is continually revisiting and changing prior judgments – very sloppy governance indeed. But if it is well managed (sparingly, with strict deadlines and some effort) then exploration is helpful time to ponder and consider – and helps limber up our thinking for a future experiment or action.

So why not try triaging your next set of decisions in the group you work with. What can you ignore? But most importantly, what would DEE have you decide? What should you DO? What could you EXPERIMENT with? What might you EXPLORE a bit more?

Split Personalities?

ImprovementNo Comments

I ended up watching the Hollywood flick Shallow Hal when channel hopping for light relief recently.

It got me thinking: I was surprised to find the film a vehicle for the ideas of Tony Robbins, so that explains part of the unexpected cognitive impact! A philosophical theme in the movie was an exploration of what is truth in what we see: how what we notice in a situation or person might seem quite different to what others experience or what is going on beneath the surface.

This resonated. There have been three news stories over the last week that have divided many social media and news commentators.

Where did you stand in regard the coverage of Tim Hunt’s comments, Rachel Dolezal’s identity and Eleanor Hawkins’ actions?

Who is right? What was wrong?

As humans we have an in-built desire to see things in black and white terms. This is called splitting – and we are more likely to do that when feeling a bit anxious or insecure.

To err is human. To ‘split’ in how we see and discuss others’ mistakes seems to be human too.

Given my interest in ‘perspective management’ you will not be too surprised to know I have been trying to step back from simple agreement with one or other side in some of these news stories.

This is not about rejection of the commitment to the enlightenment project and it’s pursuit of truth. I am a bit, but not all that, post-modern! Rather I am keen to step back from a rush to judgement; WITOS.

I recognise the ambiguity of these situations – and my very partial perspective (mediated by the slant of various media outlets and the weight of social media responses).

In organisations it is good to be curious. It is especially good to explore other perspectives, especially when the truth seem so obvious. In applying the implications the insight of ‘splitting’ we need to resist simple judgements of good and bad:

– clinicians good, managers bad
– business leaders bad, workers good
– charities good, capitalism bad

An illustration (impression) of front foot working

Front footNo Comments

I enjoyed visiting the ‘Inventing Impressionism’ exhibition at the National Gallery in London recently. I learnt about Paul Durand-Ruel who is credited with inventing the market for modern art and a number of the contemporary ways of marketing art too (solo exhibitions, gallery lectures etc).

He fought the Salon structure in Paris that had a hold on the definition of ‘good’ art. He supported artists – financially and, more importantly, with encouragement and hospitality. He enabled the, now, hugely popular Impressionism movement to emerge.

What was most impressive was how he had to keep trying new things – as he moved about Europe to escape conflict and as sources of finance for his deals came (and often, went). The chronology listed at the back of the exhibition guide has something significant (both good and bad) happening most years.

Durand-Rule had a vision and, eventually, was successful –  his family business profited from this for many decades after he had established Impressionism most lucratively in the US in the late 1900s and then achieved a breakthrough in the UK in the early twentieth century. The rest, as they say, is history.

You can get an impression of the exhibition following the first hashtag in this tweet.

As the final hash tag indicates, I think the story of Duran-Ruel is great example of what it takes to live on the ‘front foot’.

He was inspired – and acted on what he imagined. He was helped in the implementation and achievement of his vision by working well with his family and a range of financiers and artists (including ensuring a rapprochement with Monet). And fundamentally he had a self belief in his insights and skill.

When looking through the lens of this assessment for Front Foot working, I think Durand-Ruels does well – though probably wouldn’t recognise many of the more contemporary leadership terms (alignments, conflict, meetings), despite his skill for, and leadership of, contemporary art!

“…a simple trick to get along with all kinds of folk…”

ThinkNo Comments

I recall being in an English class at school when I was 14. My teacher was encouraging me to read more. I went back the next week and proudly said I had started on my fathers stack of Readers Digest. I remember her saying, that wasn’t quite what she had in mind – she was keen on full novels not abridged stories, little jokes and tales of wilderness bravery.

So, you see, I didn’t read some of the classic texts when I was younger. However, I know the second book from Harper Lee is due out in July, so thought it was time I read ‘ To Kill A Mockingbird’.

You probably know I like seeing things from different angles and through alternative perspectives – see this self assessment from 6 months ago.

I liked this section of text early on in ’To Kill A Mockingbird’. Atticus is talking with Scout about her experience at school – and the teacher who wants to hold 6 year old Scout’s ferocious reading back to fit the class scheme. Her father explains about the importance of seeing things from another point of view, particulary the new teachers.

“First of all, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

The theme – the skill of walking a while in someone else’s ‘skin’ or shoes – occurs a number more times in the book. In fact, you could say it is the heart of the story – or even the whole book.

What topic would you like to know more about?
Where would you like to think more clearly?
Who would you like to understand?  Maybe a customer view (marketing)? Or a co-worker (engagment)?
This is all about discipline – learning to see WITOS, as i have discussed before. A skill that is worth developing – and one that requires continual honing.

The Attributes and Skills of a Critical Conversation

ImprovementNo Comments

On my shelves I have a number of books with similar sounding titles;
Difficult conversations
Fierce conversations
Changing conversations

You hear, and can easily find references to, Vital Conversations, Tough Conversations, Crucial conversations.

My take on all?

There are two key – and difficult – skills that are important in any enterprise, be it business, home, hobby, voluntary…

These are the two key attributes in a ‘critical’ conversation, see this.

Firstly, are you able to identify – and agree to discuss – the critical issues. Here structured thinking methods help identify the important topics: analytical tools that can be worked through individually or interactively – question fanning, logic modelling, issue mapping, iceberg deep think etc.

In the first take on ‘critical conversations’ it is essential to get the focus right: Critical, as in focusing on what is the most important topic or issue. Discussion themes that are the IMPORTANT ones to get right. This is about NOT avoiding the tough, challenging issues. NOT getting sidetracked by the minutiae: as in the example of a senior team being diverted by endless discussions of seating plans in a new office location, and not achieving the fundamental purpose of significant change. About NOT ignoring the ‘elephant in the corner’.

Secondly, are you able to engage in a critical debate – where you and others are able to disagree, but in a way where you differ well as you explore differing perspectives (with a stronger relationship at the end, and not – as often happens – a weaker one). Methods here that can help include: the six thinking hats, balancing inquiry with advocacy, starting with appreciation, getting to know each other to develop trust, developing skills in the 3 levels of feedback, working on perspective management. Personal qualities are important too – have you some insight into personal hot (or blind) spots? How do you increase that awareness and develop the ability to delay your hard wired response?

In this sense ‘critical’ involves putting a different (and you probably believe better) perspective forward: this leads to discussions that are HARD or CHALLENGING to get right and that might come over as pretty hard hitting too. Here we need to know how best to explore different opinions: mining conflict (managing diverse views in a way that is productive), disagreeing well (so trust is preserved, or even increased). Being able to challenge others – and being open to it ourselves.

I am going to risk a mechanical metaphor to illustrate this! I believe that the engine of innovation in any institution is curiosity, and the ‘oil’ for the behaviours that turns good ideas into action is how we talk with others. The two skills in ‘crucial conversations’ are at the heart of the motor of improvement.

Critical Conversations are discussions that are both hard to focus and challenging to get right. They ‘cut to the chase’.

In a way they focus on the top right grid in a 2×2 matrix made with the dimensions of importance and challenge – they are important and hard to get right. A difficult place to get to and stay. It is the zone of productive conflict.

However, it is easy to be avoiding by choosing to be focused on the irrelevant and un-stretching topics. However, eventually, I believe this maxim is often a truism (in terms of conversations, if not flight safety!): “what seems safe is risky, and what is risky is safe”.

Important and non challenging topics achieve a chorus of agreement. Get those under your belt and move on. It is easy to dwell here.

The worst place to be is arguing over minutiae – a common ‘defence against the anxiety’ when facing the spectre of the critical conversation.

Finally, remember…

The Mother Abbess in the Sound of Music, when asked to admonish two quarrelling nuns:
“No, they are helping me to think by expressing two points of view”.

And an ancient encouragement from a (translated) latin motto: “The will to succeed – and the grace to compromise”.

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