Phil's Blog

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

Innnovation…in the kitchen: on the importantance (or not) of rules

ImprovementNo Comments

My nephew is now in his late 20s. Ten years ago, for his 18th birthday, we went to the top restaurant in Cambridge. After the meal we had a tour behind the scenes. Like Heston, there were lots of gadgets and interesting ways to cook: water baths, foam makers…

My nephew went on to work in a top Cambridge college kitchen, then went to university in his mid-twenties and now is a successful estate agent in London.

Like him I have been on a journey – though mine is still a culinary one.

It started out with Keith Floyd. I read an interview with him years ago where he outlined his principles for great cooking: buy the best ingredients you can find, cook them as simply as you can and serve with the nicest wine you can afford. Those rules have served me well for many years.

However, my latest application of those now involves the freezer! This is not the more usual trick of storing small bits of wine or even crumbled cheese – ready to use in dishes. You read about those a lot.

My discovery? Cooking from Frozen. Very little on line.  Am I the only one?

This is not about ready meals into the microwave for a minute longer than they would get starting at fridge temperature. Rather, this approach begins with home cooked food straight from the freezer to a medium-hot oven…

This might be with a dish you have already prepared:
1) A fruit crumble (with my gluten free topping of butter in chickpea and rice flour, but that is another story)
2) Lentil bake or nut roast
3) Chilli skins – left over chicken or fish skins in chilli sauce
4) Gratins
5) etc

The beauty of this method is twin pleasures of soft and crunchy; tender and browned (see photo series here).

However, this style of cooking really comes into its own if you are a meat eater.

Whilst in our home Beer Can Chicken is the total favourite (have a search on google if you don’t know what that is…), the frozen to oven approach is great for individual cuts: such as rib of beef and other roasts; duck and chicken breasts; rack of lamb and kebabs. By the time the meat in the middle is cooked the outside is nicely coloured and textured.

It works a treat when cooking up a combination of potatoes, onions and (frozen) sausages stirred regularly to spread the juices around.

And in casseroles (from coq au vin to one involving chicken, raw onions, parmesan, pepper and cream) it is brilliant – never again the trade-off between tough chicken or hard vegetables.

[By the way, alongside this you can cook what I call ‘potatoes done two ways’: half roast/half baked…both at the same time. Cut in half, put a bit of fat and salt on the cut side, place on tray, cook – don’t move the potatoes on the tray until they are ready and you serve them carefully to keep the crisp edge intact.]

Now, if this was a regular food web site I would say do use a thermometer when cooking from frozen, which is probably a good idea.  However, on the whole, by sight and touch I can tell if cooked (from a catering trick my nephew taught me…I am happy to share more).

The lesson? Do you enjoy following recipes or applying principles or breaking the rules? In the kitchen, in business, in life?

The Exchange (from an exchange of ideas)

Meetings, TeamsNo Comments

Just after the millennium I was planning a conference with a group of colleagues. In those days I called it ‘producing’ an event if I wanted to sound ‘hip’. Now I might say curating an experience! (Both are probably a bit naff, but let’s leave that for another time).

Anyhow, I expected about 150 people. But we started differently and that created a whole chain of events that led to a conference format unlike any of the others I had become well known for delivering during the 1990s.

What was the first step? The letter (email actually) that went out to invite participants to apply to come was unlike a typical one. Firstly it asked people to come only if they were really enthusiastic and ready to share their interest and create further excitement with others. Places were not limited to a few per organisation, which was normal, with the expectation of director level attendance. So secondly, in those days before social media, those who received the letter were asked to pass it on to others who might be interested, whatever their role. Thirdly, as the ‘price’ of entry those registering were asked to note their offers and requests on a registration form: they had to clearly state what they wanted to get (learn) and give (as ideas to share in the coffee queue or a table top discussion or a poster presentation).

The result? Over 650 applied. Fortunately we had to stop there as we had just bust the capacity for the venue, as usually configured. We didn’t even send one chasing up invite – again the norm for that sector at that time.

So, we then shifted gear to discovering a way to make it work, and came up with a format I still call Exchange. We focused on answering a question: “What if we could redesign the traditional conference: taking out the boring bits and the need for everyone to sit together at the same time?”

The Exchange method involves
a) A blend of more familiar conference formats: Open Space, trade fair and academic conference
b) Ensuring things are creatively captured – with artists, video – so those not there (and no one can attend everything), can get a sense of the whole, the proceedings.
c) Making use of music and media to create the right mood –including humour.
d) Promoting responsibility for finding your way – making good choices about what to go to, and how long to stay…so the meeting is self-organising within a clear framework and set of written briefings.
e) Simplifying catering – going continuous, brown bag…
f) Using overflow spaces if necessary – a barn and a marquee in this instance (sometimes linked by video)
g) And largely designing out plenary sessions (a couple of optional ‘magazine style’ fringe sessions in the round where most came, gathered round, sat on the floor)

I am happy to share the photos and video from this event – still quite moving getting on for 15 years later.

Subsequent innovations over the other Exchange events I helped with over the next 5+ years led to
1) Electronic systems to register, share ideas and pick and mix your own agenda.
2) Café sessions as an option – world, knowledge.
3) TED style punchy presentations (in the days before TED!).
4) Innovation with voting methods.
5) Motivational inputs with speakers, actors, music.
6) Introductory and ‘Masterclass’ level training – plus learning sets, co-consultancy
7) Visits and ‘raids’ to near by places.
8) Use of the emerging technologies and social media to link in colleagues and site remotely.

Whilst these days the technology for this sort of process is getting easier (especially with Twitter etc), all of these improvements arose from engagement with a classic design team. There are other things that more recent ‘exchange’ conversation with design groups are raising: how to add in a simulation or some of the ideas from this resource.

So the key for success?
a) Inviting passion, questions and contribution in those coming.
b) A Design Team to imagine what might be and to challenge assumptions – iterating and developing the ideas as they go
c) A bespoke approach – cherry picking the best and most useful of other tools and methods.

Fundamentally, the overall lesson in the success of this story is the innovation that invented a new format. And at the heart of this innovation was being deeply curious about
1) How could we say yes to all – we did build it and they did come! So, we spent time imagining ways to host all (including an option that involved a trek outside for some – a walk and talk with a task that connected to the overall theme).
2) How to make it a memorable (yet recognisable) meeting by copying and reusing elements from other formats – it was fresh and familiar at the same time. Tried and trusted methods were combined in new ways.

So, the open and respectful exchange of ideas in the design process led to The Exchange.

Responsible…for the conference call?

MeetingsNo Comments

You probably saw this funny illustration of a conference call earlier this year.

What it doesn’t pick up is the even more frustrating system that is sometimes used!

The video assumes the dial in method.

The other is the ‘dialled in’ – where some poor person (often a hapless PA) dials people in to the clever switchboard computer that connects the voices. The downside? The need to keep redialling as those on mobile phones keep losing signal strength or when someone is not available.

The most robust system? The one with higher responsibly. The dial in one.

A useful metaphor for most organisations – decentralising power is likely to increase performance…giving control to the margins, to the team.

…promoting responsibility for customer service, strategy, team performance – rather than centralised action and mandates.

WITOS: The lens (and examples) of perspective

ImprovementNo Comments

This is the fourth blog in my series on perspectives (well actually the fifth if you include this one from a couple of weeks ago).

Are you fascinated by different perspectives?

Do you share my joy in trying to see things differently?

Like me are you keen to try to get less frustrated by a different angle or point of view?

Discipline is important. WITOS is a helpful tool. It helps us see both sides

What Is The Other Side…

Are these following examples useful provocations and lessons? Let’s have a look through the lens of perspective

Whistle-blowers? Trouble-makers protecting their interests or self-sacrificial saints? Discuss?

The Taliban? Our foe or a fiction.

Are you with the pious cyclist? Ringing their bell, assuming right of way, making a woman and cyclist coming the other way retreat and retract. Or the woman on her bike virtuously manoeuvring to the right hand side of a one way street to force an oncoming cyclist coming the other (wrong) way to mound the pavement.

Looking at the excellent, perspective provoking mini exhibition on German WW1 medals at The British Museum, I was reminded of the British Library show’ on propaganda. Both demand a consideration of other points of view.

Like me do you delight in the surprising success of the Cambridge guided bus way despite the complaints? Every time is see a packed vehicle it reminds me how it has questioned my assumptions from 5 years ago.

Do you like to play ‘The Devils Advocate’? In a way WITOS invites that. The play and film The History Boys revolves around the training the lads get to think about unusual perspectives. Have a look online for quotes from the story – some great inspiration there.

Do you see ingredients past their best as a waste or inpsiration for a new dish. Some well overripe tomatoes and a soft rind cheese beyond its best helped make a brilliant potato gratin last weekend.

Is the middle or the top of The Shard the best view? Is higher better – as the sense of perspective from lower down fades…Try the test on the Eiffel Tower – or The Petronas Tower vs. the Traders hotel bar looking onto the view.

WITOS on a plane…reading as many papers from around the world as I can fit into one flight…and getting surprised, for example in The Daily Mail.

Was the latter work of Matisse the mess of an old man or infirmity inspired innovation? what do you think of The Cut Outs? Personally, I like the emphasis on prototyping – and the way it forced the attempting of something new.

And in gardening, are you 100% confident on what is a weed or plant?

And finally…Do you like the original or later version of Both Sides Now, by Joni Mitchell!?

Both Sides Now – WITOS – enjoy the journey.

A passion for perspective?

Personal productivityNo Comments

In the early 1980s after a glittering career in Royal Dutch Shell, Pierre Wack wrote a book that reflected on the scenario planning method that has made that company famous in business schools (and possibly so wealthy too). The book had a catchy title “Scenarios: The gentle art of re-perceiving”. I have written before on scenarios, which in all their forms are still a core part of my team coaching method. However, here I would like to focus on ‘gentle re-perceiving’.

Seeing things differently is actually pretty hard to achieve. Finding ways to challenge ourselves is difficult. Being challenged can feel threatening. Doing it ‘gently’ is very hard.

I know this.

I struggle to see other people viewpoint, yet I know it is at the heart of the important most important challenge in all businesses.

I think I am drawn to write, teach and facilitate about perspectives, as I know it is something I need to learn (and re learn) in each assignment and each day. As I help others hopefully I can learn to disappointment myself a little bit less on this!

So the idea of the importantance of perspectives is easy to understand: we know we see things differently to the person next to us and our different perspectives are at the heart of the problem (and the breakthroughs!) in strategy, change and team working.

And yet making this easy insight a practical part of each day is pretty hard.

Given that, what are some of the ways to gently discipline our minds (mind-sets) to make this important application all a bit easier? Finding ‘easy’ ways to do this sort of work safely matters, it really does.

1) Individually: get into the habit of asking ‘what am I missing’. Developing the discipline to try and see other points of view – what would they say, what might they be thinking? This is especially useful in a negotiation or a tense situation.

One way to practice this is through the lens of the news. I know that whenever a story I know something about is on TV or in the papers then pretty much every time the way it is presented and portrayed in the media is not quite right, sometimes in ways that are radically different to what I believe is going on. I remember one Panorama programme in the mid 1990s that I felt completely misrepresented the motivation of the managers it featured. When you read the news, think about what you might not be seeing. Why not seek out sources (papers, programmes, web pages) that you might not agree with or usually read.

Another way is through seeking feedback: with a deep curiosity to find out what you are not seeing, maybe through a 360 survey, a feedback circle or individual coaching. All are about trying to illuminate your personal blind spots – getting the top right pane of the Johari Window open a little bit.
2) In your teams: Try out some new rituals in how you meet. As well as adding in some shorter meetings (standing meetings to catch up, yes/no decision meetings) try some that slow the pace and step back from the busyness of business (and maybe the dazzle and ‘snow blindness’ of success) to explore knotty issues and what you are not seeing – possibly through the deep think process and other methods. Maybe commission some training and support from a team coach.

In your project teams and work take time to prototype, experiment and test – using PDSA and other continuous improvement and change methods.
There are lots of methods you can try in your meetings, workshops and events. Pausing regularly to ask “what are we seeing differently” is an important ritual and habit. We arrive at a session seeing things differently to other people. We leave seeing things differently to how we personally did when we arrived. Re-perceived. Hopefully.

3) In your leadership of your organisations: model inquiry, stepping back from harsh judgements and cynicism of others. This is hard work when others are wanting you to jump in, criticise and be certain. A spirit of certainty replaced by good grace and humility, based on a firm fairness. Gently. Hard work!

This sort of work is all about increasing your bandwidth, boosting your capacity. One ways many of us try to manage work pressure and stress to be certain. However, having fixed views can cause stress escalation, even to the point of cynicism and burnout. Why? Because we find ourselves in conflict with others, the world and even our own insights!

These sort of disciplines (looking for the other side, seeking the blind spot, pausing the pace to examine, taking time to notice re-perception) are all about finding ways to work, without opting for premature certainty. Finding ways to manage stressful situations other than needing to be certain. Being gentle, after all.

They are especially important when you are
- starting out with an enterprise, from a new project or new job to planning an important meeting
- stuck in conflict
- facing a major barrier in your work
- anticipating an important negotiation or even helping with mediation.

Thanks for reading this far. You get the role and importance of perspectives. Now a key question. ‘Are you bothered’? Do you want to take it on? Do you have a passion for finding and exploring different perceptions? To change your viewpoint? To step out of the herd and their assumptions in your organisation? Do you want to take time to practice? To get disciplined? For form new habits? With a your team? On your own?

All the best in leading re-perceiving. In taking time to practice challenging your own (and other peoples) thinking, mind set and action. Hard work. Important work.

The Power of Perspective

ImprovementNo Comments

Do you share my perspective on perspectives (or are you at least a little bit curious about it)? Are you keen to develop as a ‘perspective manager’?

If so, read on. (If not, please let me know – I am interested in your viewpoint.)

So, a curiosity about missing perspectives is at the heart of business success – in avoiding group think, reducing the risk of premature formulation about a plan of action and in helping communications that connects with the interests of the target audience. Fundamentally this helps achieve better decisions and more likely action.

However, curiosity is not necessarily the natural order in our organisations – see this observation on the NHS, and this piece arguing for a change . Many of us tend to advocate for ideas and ways forward that are close to our heart, and possibly not fully thought through. Advocacy (not inquiry) dominates our business life.

Uncertainty and awareness of the limitations in our understanding are seen as signs of weakness, witness the case of poor old Donald, whose google name check gets right to the well known ‘unknowns’ many times on page 1, despite his other claims to fame (or infamy).

Spending time in the early parts of the decision making diamond is important – clarifying questions, exploring opinions…. The art of good judgement in getting a good balance between divergence and convergence is a (possibly THE) key skill for a leader.

A few things are necessary in trying to improve this situation of low perception about different perspectives:

Firstly there needs to be some safety to explore difference of perspective – this will lead to conflict, which we know is frequently feared in organisations. Of course, a team or leader may not be trustworthy enough for the risk of honesty! Tread and handle with care…and lead the way whenever you can (valuing the challenge, the whistle-blower, the critic).

Secondly, it is important to keep moving and not get stuck over analysing difference perceptions – taking decisions, reviewing action, thinking of the next step, acting again – see this recent blog on cycles.

Thirdly, when you are certain, think like a scientist – identify your assumptions and look for evidence to disprove them! Hard work, but valuable. Popper  would be proud. Actually, so would the artist – who is keen to play with your (and maybe their) perspective of life or an object.

How can you apply this? Take responsibility to give it a go the next time you can. Maybe apply the ideas this week to
1) An ongoing project that needs a rethink – what are none of us seeing? Is the activity addressing the need?
2) A person who irritates you – what is the interaction teaching you, about you?
3) A team meeting – how can you make it is safe space for productive conflict? Holding back on judgement, asking the hard questions?
4) A strategic conversation – what assumptions need to be identified, tested and jettisoned?
5) An important change – think, how is it likely to be received? What is the wisdom in any likely resistance?
6) A negotiation meeting – can you judge the wants, needs and likely veto points for those you will meet?

All the best in your journey as a perspective manager.

The Art of Business: The importance of perspective

ReflectNo Comments

You probably agree with these two beliefs:
1) We all see an issue, an event, our lives, our work in ways that are a bit different to the person sitting next to us, on the phone or at the other end of cyberspace.
2) In our lives and work we will do better if we see and understand more of what is going on in any situation: our decisions will be more informed, a way forward will have more chance of success, a plan will have more support and things will feel fairer all round.

[If you don’t agree – please let me know, I would like to understand more of your point of view!]

I propose that understanding more of what others see is highly useful, however you view knowledge and whatever your stance on the Enlightenment Project :
a) If you are seeking to discover and promote truth – with a positivistic approach (maybe if you work in basic research or are someone who likes to develop a rational strategy in your organisation)
b) If you are keen to understand more of each other’s contingent realities – in a postmodern way (for example in staff engagement and listening to potential customers in a focus group or existing product users as a designer)
c) If you are trying to learn more about your assumptions and prejudices – in a ‘post-positivist’ sort of way (which can be very useful in a organisation where you are trying to avoid group think in deciding on a more emergent strategy or a team where you are trying to navigate your way through conflict)

Given how we are as humans (with mind-sets that are both firmly fixed and fluid too) and the importance of trying to understand different viewpoints as we work to improve things, maybe you will agree that in addition to the two truisms at the start of this blog there is a third crucial one for any leader (defined as someone who is trying to influence the behaviour and action of others, from a sports team captain to a member of a band; from a charity volunteer to the CEO of a major corporation).

So what is this third belief, that makes a trilogy of truisms? The proposal: the core skill a leader needs is ‘perspective management’. This ranges from:
i. A deep curiosity in what others see – whether those ‘others’ are senior colleagues, complaining customers, union stewards with a grievance or people who are met in the course of a journey. This leads to seeking out opportunities to see things differently – from starting a Board meeting with a ‘patient journey’, to walking the floor, to sitting quietly in a café or store watching potential customers examine your product.
ii. An ability to ‘hold their own beliefs lightly’. Jim Collins in ‘Good to Great’ described how level 5 leaders have a rare combination of humility and will. Leading through perspective is more about the humility of that formule– the harder part of a determined (and possibly arrogant) leader to master.
iii. A desire to reflect and refine, to review to improve in the light of experience and others opinions. They are a ‘cycle manager’.

Perspectives (and how they are explored, entertained and used) is at the heart of excellence, for a leader, team and organisation.

‘Perspective management’ is difficult to apply, it is not a precise science. Leading with and through an exchange and exploration of perspectives is more like an art, with some disciplines and a desire to help others (and oneself) seen anew:
- Like an artist, the leader is thinking all the time about how (and how far) to challenge themselves and others to see things differently
- Like an artist, the leader is open to different methods and media to help themselves and others see.
- The leader has to decide, often intuitively, how much time to invest in exploring and considering, before (and during, and after) ‘execution’

Are you a perspective manager? I hope you might see you are, or at least see the need to try and be one.

The 2×2 Holy Grail

Feedback, Improvement, ReflectNo Comments

There is one 2×2 matrix I am drawn to (and draw on) more than any other.

One that I have heard applied to government ministers, heart surgeons and sports players.

It is described in a number of ways, but it is really the same each time:
• Technical ability vrs living corporate values
• Aptitude vrs Attitude – see this tweet on it
• Skill vrs will
• Competence vrs likeability – see this  and the middle of this

When Secretary of State for health Alan Johnson was described by a few senior officials as a rare minister in the upper right box.

I have heard managers (and sports coaches) say they hire for aptitude and fire for attitude.

I have seen star performers sacked for refusing to budge out of the top left box.

It links to level 4 and 5 leadership in my values framework:

Where are you? Where are your colleagues? Do you feedback on these things to each other? See the third type of feedback here.

The Holy Grail? Certainly the hardest.

On the importance of Cycles

Improvement, TeamsNo Comments

As you might know, I am quite a fan of cycling – to the station, through town, to meetings…observing and thinking as I go.

However, this blog is NOT about bicycles.

Nor is it about the fad cycle, another sort that interest me (from management theories to technology to music to fashion).

It is a bit about the learning cycle, and the associated ideas…from Deming to Kolb.

It IS about the cycles that should be at the heart of organisational life. NOT the annual cycle, the three year cycle or even the long term economic cycle, despite the exhortations to think out of the short term performance box.

Rather it is the sort of cycle that helps individuals, teams and organisations get (and keep) on the front foot, and so move from:
- Struggling to good: recovering
- From good to great: improving
- From great to brilliant: inspiring

In my work helping people get onto the ‘front foot’ there is a pattern and rhythm that is worth paying attention to, whether it is in Corporate Boards, project teams and individual leaders. This cycle is the ‘gum’ needed to help when there is a big (t)ask – a big challenge, a significant goal, the need to get going. It helps groups of people deal with change – in team membership, team leadership, team context or team role.

It is seen in the month cycle used in individual coaching – it creates the reflection space for leaders to pause, review, think and plan…and so avoid the traps – in a framework I have Stolen With Pride for many years!

It is seen in the 4-8 week cycle in action learning sets.

It underpins the quarterly cycle used in the meeting architecture of productive teams.

It is at the heart of what helps a individual or group recover, improve or inspire.

It is in the pattern of the ‘90 day reviews’ that are very popular with some of my clients – as a way of focusing the work they are doing. In fact, I have just come off a call leading one with colleagues distributed across a continent. The after action review is a powerful part of this. The ‘quarter turn of the key’ helps crank insight into action. It keeps the Question:Breakthrough:Follow-through cycle going

I use it in my ‘team gymnasium’. [Gym? The ‘technology’ and exercises I use in the team gymnasium is a blend integrated into 6-9 months of activities for individual team members (monthly) and the team together (quarterly).] The combination of assessment, pre-reading, talks, sessions and action planning helps to stimulate and maintain momentum. It encourages growth and helath.

The framework of mine I get asked for most often, and the tweet of mine that has been retweeted or favourited the most, is the same one. It is about this cycle. That model is a matrix that combines ‘abc’ and ‘5-30-90’. It is a key part of the Team Gymnasium. It can be used in a rolling manner in line leadership and executive coaching.

So what are the key elements of this ‘cycle’ I have alluded to? It is marked by:
1) Its pro-activity: the choice to keep moving (and meeting) to maintain and build momentum – no matter how hard.
2) The underpinning curiosity about improvement, impact, individual views (not quite the 4i model - nearly).
3) The way it becomes the forum for reflection and reflective practice (btw, I argue this is most essential in Noble Purpose Organisations, due to the perplexing patterns many encounter – more on that to come in an imminent blog, or email for my longer ‘Think Piece’).
4) The way it encourages individuals and teams.

Fundamentally, we are talking of cycles of experimentation…a feature that is at the root of human progress, from science to art; seen in history and in the world today.

So I specialise in ‘cycling’:

• The 1 month improvement approach in mentoring and coaching
• The 1-2 month learning set
• The 90 day reviews in change, improvement projects
• The ongoing Team Gymnasium – used in management development programmes too
• The annual business planning or strategy process
• The ad-hoc post project review.

Whatever you do (whether you are a line manager or an executive leader), are you a ‘cycle coach’ too?

The perspective of the rear view mirror…

Engagement, MeetingsNo Comments

Getting on for 10 years ago I had an idea.

Blogging + Photos = Photos to Make you think (PTMYT).

This was before shifts in technology were heralded with the iPhone…

So then it became…

Blog + Photos + Smartphone = BOOM …you know the ‘social’ answer…Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter etc.

And the reason for sharing this?

Not for how I missed my calling as a social media billionaire…

Rather, I am not a fan of ‘icebreakers’.

However, in many events, for many years, I note how groups have found it energising (or at least cathartic) to a start with this ‘setting the scene’ exercise:
1. In pairs
2. What has happened (over the last x years, or in y sector) that has surprised you?
3. What was predicted (assumed or widely anticipated) that has not come to pass?
4. Shout out some of the most striking (and surprising!) findings
5. Capture to screen

This is a method that works very well in a strategy retreat or scenario workshop.

And it works well in many team development, service improvement and conflict resolution situations too.

Ps If you have read this far, then this year old blog on ‘pictures’, might interest you.

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