Author Archives: Peter Leeson

Rethinking Management

1      Introduction

2020 will almost certainly go down in history as the year of Covid-19, the year when a pandemic got people all over the world isolated, forbidden from mingling, seeing friends, colleagues and family.  On every continent, people are to “self-isolate” for periods from a week to several months while politicians scrambled and argued as to what was the best way to contain the virus and health professionals worked overtime to try to find a potential resolution.

The World Health Organisation representative stated in a conference[1]:

WHO Spokesman“What we have learnt with the Ebola outbreaks is that you need to react quickly […] you need to be consistent, you need to be coherent, you need to look at the other sectors impacted, […] the security, the economy.  Be fast, have no regrets, you must be the first mover.  If you need to be right before you move, you will never win; perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to […] management; speed trumps perfection.  And the problem we have in society at the moment is that everyone is afraid of making a mistake, everyone is afraid of the consequence of error.  But the greatest error is not to move; the greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”

From a business point of view, it is a real crisis.  Many small organisations will cease to exist as people stay away from shops, bars and restaurants.  Larger companies have to learn to work without using the office, managing teams that are working from home, each team member isolated, yet expected to work together.

In the beginning, we had mechanistic management, in which the manager needed to maintain visibility on the unskilled workers, continuously checking that they were doing as instructed and not taking unauthorised breaks.  Towards the end of the previous century, a more systemic style of management came to light. Management focused on interdependencies between functions and skills, the value of employees as skilled and trained assets begun to be understood and we got rid of the old concept that you can replace anybody with anybody else.  Within this area, some remnants of mechanistic attitudes remained, particularly with the creation of the most counter-productive “open plan” offices with its noise levels, interruptions and workers isolated behind earphones.

The time has come to reinvent the way we collaborate and interact based on remote working and distance learning.  The technology is ready, but many people are not. This state presents a significant number of problems and challenges to resolve and questions to answer. However, it also offers you a unique opportunity to rethink and reorganise your business to be more efficient.  I would like, in the following paragraphs, to make some suggestions and recommendations as we move towards a new management style.

Home Office

2      The Challenges

2.1     Security

Are people accessing your company data remotely?  Are you sure that they have the security levels that you would expect in your business transactions?  The penalties for a GDPR infringement are costly and you could be putting the future of your organisation at risk if you allow one of your home-workers to access personal data over an unsecured home wifi network.

It is not difficult to implement a firewall that only allows registered computers to access your network (white-listed) to stop employees from downloading customer information unto their personal devices and placing you at risk.

2.2     Work Space

When working from home, you need to have a dedicated workspace.  You cannot expect people to work efficiently if they are working from a couch with a laptop on their knees, or at a kitchen table that must be cleared away three times a day for meals.

The business should offer to subsidise, within limits, the creation of a home office.  I do not expect you to pay for all your staff to have a home extension, but they should get support in the setting up of a good quality desk, an office chair, appropriate lighting, and whatever they need to be able to do their job.

2.3     Team Meetings

Team meetings are valuable: you need to be able to exchange information and keep each other up to date with what is going on regularly.  There is no excuse not to have remote team meetings today; the technology for this is easy to use and cheap. Skype and Skype for Business, WhatsApp (including desktop version), Google Meet, Zoom, Discord, Slack, Microsoft Teams, MeetUp to name only some of the most common all allow quality communication and exchange, sharing and presenting, as well as audio-visual interaction.

Team meetings should be organised at regular hours, included in people’s calendars, and compulsory unless they have a valid excuse, just as if they were in the office.  Also, just like in the office, the meeting’s facilitator needs to ensure that people remain focused and participating.

Online meetings are more challenging than face-to-face because you cannot necessarily see if team members are listening, participating or reading their emails.

2.4     Support

When you are in the office, you can see that one of your colleagues is not well, not happy.  They appear depressed or distressed; they are not joking anymore and don’t want to talk to anyone; you can see that something is not right and offer them support, friendship.  You can reach out to them or make sure that someone who is usually close to them does.

When you are on a conference call, will you notice the person who does not participate?  Will you realise that one of your team needs additional care and support?  It is easy to miss in the best of times, but when you are only communicating through devices and phone lines, it becomes a challenge.  Additionally, when at the office, team members call in to say they cannot come in because they are not well; when working from home, that warning signal no longer exists.

We a manager, you bear a responsibility to some extent for the mental health of your team.

I would recommend that you set up some sort of “buddy system” – teammates who are in contact with each other at least once a day, making sure that their colleague is OK, physically and mentally through informal banter.

One approach to implementing this is through daily peer reviews: every day I will have a call with team member X to review what they have done, and a second call with team member Y to present/explain/test what I have done.  This approach creates an active chain of best practices, lessons learnt and continuous improvement of the work, while time ensuring that no one is left isolated and there is a dynamic check on all team members.  Depending on your business, these daily calls could also be mentoring calls or have another defined purpose.

Even more, I would recommend that, whatever tool you are using to keep in touch with each other, you allow for informal chat, jokes, “water-cooler” conversations between team members.

2.5     Mental Health

Working alone, not going out, whether it is because of a crisis like Covid-19, illness or the need to care for children or parents can be very stressful.  Cabin-fever is a real problem when you are locked up continuously.  When working with a remote team, management must ensure that their people are not suffering unduly from their isolation.

You need to encourage them to take breaks regularly.  Remind them that the objective is to achieve the results, create the products, deliver the services and not to sit at your desk from 09:00 to 18:00 every day.  Some might prefer to work early mornings or late nights and take time off during the day.  You should not penalise them because they run an errand or have a nap during office hours.

You should also encourage them to get out of their home if that is possible.  Go for a walk or some other exercise they can do; if they cannot go out, remind them to open their windows wide at least once a day, even in the coldest winter, to air out the place.  They should be encouraged to go to a gym or do yoga.  “Mens sana in corpore sano”: if you don’t take care of your body, your brain will suffer.

2.6     Motivation

How do you motivate team members who are working on their own, isolated in their homes?  It can be very demotivating to have no one to whom you can speak, not seeing a colleague for days.

2.6.1     Maintain Relationships

We are social animals, and our society is not one of individuals, but an intricate system of relationships.  Our sense of self is derived from our social interactions, and when one is socially isolated, it can be extremely soul-destroying.

Building on what I wrote above, it is critical that, as a manager, you keep communication lines open and active with every individual in your team.  Your position requires that you regularly have personal communication with everyone in your team – not necessarily daily, but at least weekly.  There are different ways to achieve this contact.  The “Agile” software development methodologies recommend daily “stand-up” meetings with the whole team to review what each one has done, is going to do next, and what problems or concerns are blocking them[2].   As a team leader or manager, you should enforce these meetings and ensure that you can identify anyone who might be struggling.

2.6.2     Critical Thinking

One of the best motivational tools is coaching people to discover the solution themselves rather than telling them the answer or deciding for them what they need to do, how and when.  Your role as a manager is not to bully your team into obeying your orders, but it is about helping your colleagues embrace critical thinking and decision making.  When and working from home, it becomes more challenging to decide to call in to ask whether they are allowed to do something and wait for the response.

The Socratic (or elenctic) method is a method of verifying and validating someone’s ideas and assumptions by questioning them and presenting them with cases when their concept doesn’t quite manage practical reality.  A good leader will seek to ask the right questions rather than demand to be respected.

2.7     Rewards

As in so many other areas, frequent small rewards go a long way to motivate and encourage.  These rewards need not be complicated; public recognition can be enough in many cases.

To assist with performance and productivity, the usage of frequent small rewards may become more habitual.  When working from home, team members may remember that they are free to decide their working hours and methods but must remember that their objective is to complete the tasks to match expectations.

Of course, it may not be as simple as paying them based on results you are already using salaried members of staff. Still, you must consider how to reward individual members of the team for continued quality work.

2.8     Social Life

Many companies know the value of social life, regularly organising a Friday social drink or a lunch to celebrate some event.  Events can also be arranged online, with a regular meeting to which everyone is invited, but no work-related agenda is set.  Team members join with cup or glass of something and just chat, socialise for half an hour.

Of course, all team members should be encouraged to invite their colleagues to meetings or chat directly through one of the many tools available.

Another aspect of this is the community social responsibility of the organisation.  Many companies have a charitable department in which employees volunteer to organise fund-raisers or support a local charity.  Corporate social responsibility should be encouraged, allowing individuals to participate and organise remotely, alone or in groups.

2.9     Tasks and Objectives

If team members are going to work more or less independently, they should have a clear understanding of their tasks, roles, objectives and limitations.   The management team (at every level) must ensure clear, coherent and consistent messages at all times, in what they say, write and do.  Team members cannot just walk over to a colleague and ask “what did she mean by that?” They now have to contact someone online and will be more careful about asking “stupid questions” in writing.

As a consequence, it is required that all communication, from the company vision statement down to the assigning of tasks, be known, understood and accepted by the people concerned.  An approach such as OKR (Objectives and Key Results) facilitates the aligning of objectives and needs in a clear, quantified manner.  If the final aim isn’t understood and measured, you may safely expect your team members to deviate from their task and deliver something that does not correspond to expectations (whether over or under).  Tom Gilb’s approach to value planning and his “Planguage” also allows refining requirements and expectations beyond common misunderstanding.

2.10  Planning and Discipline

Team members need to share their detailed plans and must strive to respect them.  If you want to work from 06:00 to 08:00, then have a break until 10:30, that is all right, but should be communicated in your schedule.

It is essential when working alone to have a clear routine.

Within that schedule, one needs to ensure that work can be completed without excessive distractions.  When working from home, you potentially have a spouse, children and pets to interrupt your work; you have the opportunity to take a nap or start cleaning; you may decide to go shopping or sit on the couch and watch television for hours.  These are all real temptations for the home worker, and there is little management can do about it other than remind them about the need to deliver on time.

One additional time-waster is the vast array of “social media” that are available.  You should encourage (not enforce) team members to switch off all social media when working, except for those required for business reasons.  You do not need to read your emails as soon as they come in, you can read them two or three times a day and be up to date.  You should not be tempted to jump every time an acquaintance posts a meme on Facebook.

2.11  Right to Fail

When working alone, you may go down the wrong path and completely misunderstand an activity or task.  It might only become apparent when the work is complete, time and money invested, and the results of various team members are consolidated into a final product or service.  Failure should be considered an opportunity to learn and not a cause of castigation.

“Fail fast” is a recommendation in most cases.  You should not hesitate to try something new, but test it to determine its viability and eliminate the solution as rapidly as possible if necessary.

The object of science is not to find the ultimate solution and the perfect answer; it is to identify the smallest number of assumptions that allow you to explain, through deduction, the largest number of observable phenomena.  When finding a solution, it becomes the duty of anyone following a scientific process to test it and determine whether it is valid.  If you identify a case in which your assumptions do not appear to support the evidence, it may be that they are false, or it may be that you have identified the limit of their applicability[3].

Encourage team members to fail as quickly as possible.


3      A New Way Forward?

The 2020 global crisis has had many consequences and an enormous impact on the way people work all over the world.  While it has undoubtedly created hardship in many places, it has also had an amazingly beneficial effect on the environment and the rest of the world.  The problems raised are primarily due to the lack of preparation and the surprise factor.

We need to learn the lessons and start implementing a new approach to the way we conduct business with remote management options.  For many jobs, there is no need to work in a given location or at specific times.  I regularly come across IT professionals who have left an idyllic country life and moved to a crowded, noisy, polluted city to find work.  This move should not be necessary in the age of satellite communication and high-speed internet.

We have an opportunity to rethink our businesses and management techniques.  We can move our new management firmly into the 21st century, respecting employees and promoting a global community-based culture in which family and work can merge and support each other.

I do not believe that we need to throw out everything; I am not saying that we should condemn all office buildings and make everyone work from home. However, I do believe that these buildings can be used more effectively by reducing the space required, have more meeting rooms and better layouts for workers who do not come to the office every day.

[1] I have removed the words that point specifically to health care and Covid-19 as I want to make sure that managers reading this don’t discard the information as not relevant to their business…

[2] These “scrum” meetings, if you are not familiar with them are daily, but severely time-boxed to no more than 15 minutes during which every participant gives their progress report. The “scrum-master” gathers all the impediments and roadblocks and ensures that they are handled appropriately.

[3] The theory of universal gravitation is not false just because the theory of relativity and quantum physics appear to prove otherwise.

Designing Quality

Designing Quality into your Learning Experience

In December 2019, I held a webinar on e-learning and quality, in the context of the “Learning Design Summit”.  According to the organiser, my talk had one of the highest percentages of positive feedback, giving it a little green “award” on the feedback page.  You can see the (recorded) talk on my Youtube page hereunder.

The full version of the talk, including extended introduction and Q&A at the end, can be found at and the “slides” used in the presentation (including links to the source material) is available at


The Need for Vision

The Need for Vision

“Where there is no vision, the people perish,” says the Bible (Proverbs 29:18); in other translations, it reads that “where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint”.  These words hold true in business as well and remind us that not only do we need a shared vision, but that vision needs to be revealed, communicated, understood and known.

It is important to have a vision for the organisation.  I am not referring to just the marketing vision, the empty words you put out to tell the world that your products and services are the best, you need something to persuade your team members to remain with you.  Remember that your best people can easily find work somewhere else, and it will be very expensive and difficult to replace their knowledge and experience.

Double Vision

What is your External Vision?Bifocal glasses

One of the first questions I ask senior management is always to explain their vision to me.  In 5 or 10 years time, what will your organisation’s reputation be that will attract prospects and possibilities to you rather than to your competition.  It always amazes me that CEOs and MDs of significant businesses have no concept of a vision or understanding of the evolution of their market.  They appear to believe that business is doing OK and that, by continuing to do the same thing, they will thrive.  When I point out that someone, somewhere is about to invent something that will make their business obsolete, they don’t know how to respond.

Once senior management has a vision and decided that the business will have a good reputation for whatever reason, there is an effort to be made to ensure that this is a common vision, across the organisation.  The vision needs to be not just communicated, but become part of the daily life and the way things are done – of course, at no time, can senior management be seen to do something that is contrary to the vision as it will immediately lose all credibility.

What is your Internal Vision?

But your commercial vision is not enough, no matter how good it is.  The next question is about your vision for your staff.

You want to be the preferred employer, you want the best people to come work for you, you want your most experienced and skilled people to stay with you.

If you want your best staff to remain working for you, you need to understand their motivation.  At this point, I recommend an independent person to identify what are the things that motivate people in your organisation, and what the things that demotivate them.

You probably have “exit interviews” when someone leaves the business, but are these actually identifying the real reasons?  I have heard HR managers tell me that the most common reason is that they “were offered a better deal somewhere else”. This is not an acceptable answer because, unless the person concerned has an extraordinary reputation, it is very unlikely that this offer just flew in the window; they were looking for a job somewhere else, they were actively searching, interviewing and negotiating.  Why?

You need to find out what it is that would motivate people to stay with you.  What are the things that keep them interested, challenged, faithful?  If the only thing that keeps them working in your team is the money, they will probably be leaving soon.  If they are interested in cutting edge technology, helping the poor, stability, working with a respected leader, whatever it may be, that is what you need to understand and decide if you can deliver.

Words, Words

In “My Fair Lady”, the musical based on the Pygmalion story, Elisa (Audrey Hepburn) sings “words, words words, I so sick of words […] show me!“.

The same is true with your vision statement.  Don’t just put out nice words that would look good on a motivational poster, with the picture of an eagle or a sunrise, you need to demonstrate that this vision is related to reality.

For this, I create a “butterfly chart”:

  • In the middle of the chart is the vision statement.
  • To the left of the vision statement is the list of all the impediments, the things that are stopping the vision from being the reality, the roadblocks.
  • To the right of the central vision statement are the consequences and impacts of the vision.  If this vision was implemented as proposed, what would be different in the organisation? How would people act, what would they see, what would change?

Once we have that list, we can start working on what to do about it.

Every impediment to the left of the central vision requires a plan on how to remove it.  As for many things, this might be a simple action, or it might require a detailed, budgeted and resourced plan.

Every consequence to the right of the vision requires a proposal on how to implement or speed up its effects.  What can be done in order to ensure that this result is achieved faster?

The Time is Now!

Now is the time to start changing things, turning your personal vision into a shared vision, changing your vision into results.

Changing the Management Attitude to Quality

At a recent conference where I was speaking, a participant asked me how to persuade management that they need to focus more on delivering quality instead of just doing everything as fast and cheap as possible.

I have frequently come across managers who believe that they simply need to tell people to work faster, and magic will happen.  These same managers don’t understand why you can’t just do your job correctly the first time.  Do it more quickly, do it correctly, you don’t need time to think, plan or structure your work intelligently because that is non-billable work.

It can be a challenge to persuade that type of person of the necessity to do things in a more measured and controlled approach.

1         Why Change?

The first question you need to answer before you proceed is to identify why do you want to change things and how much do you want to?

Your management appears not to have the same priorities as you as they continue to work the way things are.  You have reasons to believe that the business is not managed efficiently, but you must also bear in mind that you might be wrong.  Perhaps you don’t have the full picture; maybe there are valid reasons for not worrying about the quality aspects.  I worked for a while in an organisation that had been bought up by an investment company.  It was apparent that their objective was to lower costs and maximise sales over a short period in time to get the best resale value for the business.  They were not interested in the survival of the company after a rapid profit-taking exercise.  The managing director of this company told me that “quality and compliance are no longer part of the strategic objectives”.

Once you have established why you want things to change and why your management is less interested in changing things, we can proceed to the next step, which is to calculate the cost and the value of the change.

2         Measuring the Cost

If management’s first preoccupation is financial, then you need to prove the cost of quality.  That means you need to understand how sub-standard quality is affecting the bottom line and make recommendations on how to solve the issue.  Perhaps someone has these data, but it is unlikely that you will have free access to the HR or accounting data.  You will need to implement a series of metrics that will allow you to understand and demonstrate the cost of quality.

2.1        The Cost of Status-Quo

First, you can measure the actual time spent correcting defects that were reported by the client.  That the most straightforward measurement and should already be available if you have any reasonable time reporting system in place.

Other metrics are very useful but require more work.

2.1.1        Loss of Productivity

Loss of productivity is an important metric.  Whenever your team member is required to stop what they are doing to help, research or fix an issue, they are not productive, and the work they should be doing is not done as planned.  If an architect is called off the project on which he(*) is working and needs to take time to investigate a past project on which he may have worked, to find out the reason for failure, discover an appropriate solution, explain it to the people who need to implement it, and more, we are talking, at best, about one hour during which his own project is not progressing, more probably he will be delayed by at least a day.  The architect’s one-day interruption may delay the project by a day, meaning that the development phase cannot start work on time, potentially leading to wasting several days or weeks.  Depending on the size of the team, this can all be very expensive.

2.1.2        Loss of Reputation

NPS stands for the Net Promoted Score, something you have certainly come across as some company asks you whether you would recommend them to friends and family on a scale of 10.  NPS counts the number of people who respond 9 or 10 as promoters and gives them a positive score; those who answer 1 to 6 are considered as detractors and given a negative score; 7 and 8 are neutral and are counted as zero.  Scores are averaged out on a scale from -100 to +100.  To get a score of +100, every single respondent would have to give you a 9 or 10 likelihood of recommending you to friends and family.  A score higher than zero is good: that means more people gave you a 9 or 10 than those who scored you below 7.  Generally, you should be pleased to get a score of 20 to 50.

Every time your client calls you up because of a problem or defect in your product, you can safely assume that she is less likely to recommend you to friends and colleagues.  Depending on the product you are selling and the impact of potential defects, you may decide that you will lose one NPS point for every complaint or possibly every 5 or 10 calls.  After only a few problems, your supporters are turning into detractors, who may actively be recommending their colleagues to avoid working with you.

You risk losing your existing client, and you are potentially losing a new one should your contact person change companies.

2.1.3        Loss of Staff

The more pressure you are putting on the staff to work faster, the more you blame them for not producing better quality, the more likely it becomes that they will leave.  The first people to go and find work somewhere else will be the most valuable players in the business.

Are you willing to risk your staff in leaving and take on the cost of hiring and training new people?  Consider that newly hired staff do not have the experience, the knowledge, the capabilities of those who left.  In addition to the loss of productivity from losing a capable team member, you now need to lose additional productivity of one of the remaining team members to bring the new starter up to speed.

The cost of hiring a new person includes the direct cost of advertising for the job or using an agency to do so, the loss of productivity until a new reasonable person is found, the potential requirement to increase the salary in order to attract suitable candidates, the time spent by someone on your team on training and mentoring.  If this is a relatively responsible position, such as an architect or a project manager, you can expect several months lost before she is up to speed and genuinely productive.

2.1.4        The Spiral of Defect-Prone Products

By allowing sub-standard products to hit the market, you are guaranteeing interruptions in your production work in the coming months and years.

Creative people doing an intellectual job (and that includes everyone in the IT industry) perform best when they are in “the flow” (see Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi’s book on this subject) and can concentrate entirely on doing their work.  Every time they are interrupted while in the flow, it will take at least twenty minutes before they can get back to the same level of concentration.

The interruption means that they need to take time to understand again where they were going and what they were doing.  There is a strong possibility that the disruption in concentration will lead to a break in the continuity of the work, allowing new defects to be inserted into the product.

By delivering and maintaining products that contain defects, you are generating new errors into your new products unless you put in place an approach that ensures that people already working on projects are not allowed to be interrupted by previous projects and customer support.  Unfortunately, a customer complaining is the kind of short-term priority that overrides everything else, so most businesses would take their best people of long-term quality activities to solve a short-term problem.

2.2        The Cost of Changing

Changing the way things are done will naturally incur additional costs.

2.2.1        Consultancy

Of course, my first recommendation is to call on someone like me to identify what and how to change things.

2.2.2        Postponed Work

How much work can you cancel or postpone?  If you are going to reduce your workload and pressure, you are going to have to cancel some activities.  Perhaps you need to stop offering rapid support to your clients, or you need to postpone a development project to give you time to clear up your legacy debt, but something is going to have to give.  You cannot sweep the floor clean if you are not prepared to move some things out of the way.

2.2.3        New Developments

New developments are, of course, also to be costed. You must take into consideration the cost of training, new controls, the roll-out of processes, techniques and technologies.

Phil Crosby famously wrote that “Quality is Free”, however changing the way a team does its work is a necessary investment.  Because you are deploying a new way of working, you are going to have to inform staff of the new requirements, create new reporting structures or process documentation, establish metrics and controls, so this will involve the typical additional expenses that one would assign to any change programme.

2.3        Keeping up with the Neighbours

Someone once told me that improvement is like going up the down escalator.  If you are not putting in the effort to move forward, you are moving backwards.

Whatever business you are in, there is someone out there who is offering, if not identical, then very similar services.  Someone doing it differently may mean that they are doing it better or cheaper or in a way that is more suitable for a particular industry or culture.  They will steal your customers as soon as they can.  Consider that someone of whom you have never heard is going to create something new, disruptive, ingenious, unique that, in one or two years, is going to revolutionise your industry and make your products or services old-fashioned or completely redundant…  Are you ready?

The idea of delivering high quality means that most of your clients should prefer to stay with a known, working, proven solution rather than gambling on changing for another provider.  Delivering high quality means that your users speak well of you and, when they change employers, they will recommend your products and services.

If you are the cutting-edge, leading industry you believe you are, then you need to be aware that your competitors are currently studying you and imitating you.  They are learning from your mistakes and successes and will come out with something that will have advantages over your offer.

If you want to survive beyond the present, you cannot overestimate the importance of defining the quality that you wish as the basis of your reputation, designing that quality into every level and phase of development and delivery, demonstrating quantitatively that you have achieved your marketing promises.

3         What Needs Changing

If you have understood the cost and can demonstrate the importance and the urgency of changing the way things are done, the natural next step includes identifying what needs to change.

3.1        Company Culture

The culture of the company is defined as the way employees act when management is not around.  If you want to focus on improving the culture, so everyone starts working qualitatively, it is not sufficient to just put out a memo.  It requires clear support and actions that impact the motivation of team members by making them want to produce better quality.

A policy may establish a baseline, but it is never enough.  Management will be required to take actions to demonstrate the value of the new approach and prove their belief in its importance by being seen to apply the rules and principles themselves.  In other words, they will be required to become leaders rather than managers.

3.2        Education

Most industries spend a significant amount of time and money on training people, teaching them to follow instructions, use the tool correctly, and respect step-by-step procedures.

If you need to change the way people act and think you will require education in addition to the training.  Team members need to understand why it is essential to do things following the new approach.  They need to accept the idea that they are being asked to put in an extra effort now to improve their work-life balance in the future.

3.3        Infrastructure and Environment

Perhaps additional tooling is needed.  New tooling or technology may mean new equipment, changes to the layout and facilities and many other potential physical changes.  It is not possible in a general article like this to truly consider the level of change that might be necessary for any given circumstance, but, in addition to the obvious (e.g. upgrades to available software products), think of the potential impact of repainting the offices, putting in some plants and paintings (art, not motivational posters) and other items that will make the environment more pleasant.

3.4        Goals Vs Tasks

Many organisations work through procedures and tasks, decomposing the final product or service into a series of things that need to be done and assuming that if every step is taken correctly, you will arrive at your destination.

It is preferable, in this case, as in others, to ensure that the end-goal is clearly understood.  The team members need to know what they are trying to achieve and how important is their particular task in the overall chain of events.

By focusing more on the end goal, they will have the option to look at their work and recommend improvements, short-cuts, identify missing steps…  Your team members know, better than anyone else, how to achieve better results; if they are required to follow detailed step-by-step procedures, they will not have the opportunity to point out the waste and will only get more frustrated, therefore less productive.

4         How to Change

Many years ago, I raised problems with my manager, told him what I thought was wrong and the risks related to the issue; he replied: “that’s interesting, what do you propose we should do about it?”

Until that moment, I considered my role to be that of identifying problems, and he was to resolve them.  Everything changed that day.  I understood that if you know why we need to change and you know what needs to change, you should also be able to tell me how we should go about it.

Note that my manager at the time did not ask what I should do or what he should do.  His question was about what we should do to solve the issue at hand.  When you prepare your talk to your manager about changing the organisation, do not commit to doing everything yourself, but do not try to make her change everything on her own.  You are presenting this as a team, and you are seeking to resolve this as a team.

This final stage should naturally lead into identifying who are the best people to lead, manage, conduct and perform the necessary activities; this will allow you to determine when it can be done and establish appropriate priorities.

5         Conclusion

Changing is frequently less challenging than accepting the need for change; once you agree that it is necessary, time and resources can be found.  While many people trust that there is a need to progress, to change, to evolve, we have a general tendency to postpone the effort because the additional effort requires motivation.  Persuading someone of the need to take the first step to implement in-depth change is therefore challenging and requires a real understanding of that individual’s personal motivation.

It is best not to present management with a pile of extra work they need to perform, but provide them with as much detail as possible to support your arguments and facilitate the implementation.

(*) For grammatical and legibility reasons, I am assigning a gender to the various individuals mentioned. No reason for which one, but I don’t want to write “she or he” every time.

Last weekend, I saw the future.

Oh, I haven’t witnessed a miracle, I haven’t had a vision of the world in 50 years, I did not have a religious epiphany or discover the secret of science fiction.  No, I have seen young people full of curiosity and imagination.

I was at a conference, but it didn’t happen at the conference.  It happened before I got to the conference and after I left the conference.

On the flight to the conference, I had a window seat.  The middle seat was taken by a little boy called Maxie, probably 6 or 7 years’ old.  I offered him my seat, which he was eager to take and sit by the window.  His mother was with an 8 months’ old baby and wanted to remain next to the aisle so that she could get up, stretch or pass the baby to her husband.  So, for three hours, I sat next to a six-year-old who had no one to whom he could talk apart from me.  The curiosity and imagination of a first-grader are apparently boundless.  He told me his life story, all the places where his teacher had lived, explained about their holiday in Sardinia and taught me all about different types of whales.  He questioned me about everything and nothing – in particular, I had to dredge up whatever memories and notions I had of Queen Victoria and the royal family, how many rooms (and toilets!) there might be in Buckingham Palace and so many other topics I don’t remember.  He was a wonderful little guy and made my flight quite tiring but so interesting and fun.

The never-ending curiosity about all things is one of the most beautiful peculiarities of children.  At the same time, one has to be concerned about the complete trust they place in the answers received.

After the conference, I got the opportunity to visit a local coding club.  Youngsters between the ages of 14 and 18 presented something on which they had been working: a program to manage genetic engineering!

Based on a document that appeared to be an automated translation from Russian into English, these young Romanians needed to understand the project.  They then proceeded to learn about genetic engineering, CRISPR and the PAM sequence; they had to learn how to identify the DNA structures that they were supposed to locate, how to isolate strings and extract RNA from DNA.  They studied Python programming and built a solution.  All this was completed within one month, after which they had to submit their proposal to the competition organisers.

Their solution was submitted less than 15 minutes left before the deadline and accepted by the organisers as a valid approach.  They have now moved on to the next phase, building up their in-vitro demonstrations of the technology before they go to Moscow to present the final solution to the jury.

Seeing the interest, the curiosity and the willingness to learn of all these young people was a very humbling experience for me.  Frequently, young people are seen as having insufficient motivation or interests, more focus on their phones and having fun; frequently they are even considered as being addicted to computers or… let me call them “various substances”.  This group of young people demonstrated the joy of discovery and learning.  With little outside support, they motivated themselves to achieve what many adults would have abandoned as an impossible situation.

The boy on the plane was motivated solely by curiosity and the pleasure of knowing things, but he was the kind of boy who had the opportunity to grow into someone like the young people at the computer club.

These young people had managed to combine, alone and in a very short time, many skills that one would expect to see in the business world.

  • Organisation: they got themselves organised as an integrated team in which they could best use the skills of each individual and collaborate to deliver the result.
  • Learning: they took the time to truly understand every aspect of the job that needed doing. From a dubious translation, they went beyond just implementing the requirements to make sure that they understood the industry, the technology, the needs and expectations of the organisers of the event.
  • Control: while delivering a project only a few minutes before the deadline is not necessarily something I would recommend, the manner in which they managed to develop, test and correct the product within the required time frame demonstrates a level of control rarely seen in professional contexts. One of the young people told me that when they discovered, with only a few hours left, that the system was not working, they decided that “they didn’t have time to panic”, they just got down to work, researched, identified and fixed the problem instead.
  • Creativity: when trying to solve a problem that like this, a creative approach to developing a valid solution is indispensable. One of the advantages of youth is that you do not yet know what cannot be done, so you can focus on getting it done without complaining that it’s not possible.
  • Engineering: this project was, first and foremost, an engineering project. It involved basic engineering practices and, without having a manager telling them what to do, they implemented the fundamentals of engineering.

Seeing these young people at work gives me great hope for the future.  I hope that they never lose their curiosity, their willingness to ask questions, their ability to learn, create and grow.

Pragmatic Improvement

The approach to improvement involves the use of pragmatic improvements, realistic changes and processes that are selected because they support the people doing the work in producing higher quality.

  1. Challenge the self-evident. If you have always done it that way, if this is the way the boss wants it done, if this is what was recommended in the latest book or by your favourite consultant, question it. Why should this be the right way to do  things for you?
  2. Take time away from work. Change your mind, go for a run or a walk, read a novel, do something other than sitting at your desk from time to time to refresh your mind. Don’t take your phone, don’t browse the internet if you work on a computer all day, but move away, change the focus of your eyes so that you can see and think something different.
  3. Question why you are being asked to do something and what is the point. So many of us do not know the value of our work. I have missed my children’s birthday parties in order to make rich people richer, to fix a minor defect in a product that has no real impact on anything that matters. Is that really how you would like to sum up your life?

Dare to ask the questions, dare to challenge the data

The Importance of Communication



The importance of Communication in a modern business of any kind cannot be over-estimated. We live in world of communication, we are all continuously posting on Facebook, writing blogs, taking selfies, etc. and yet the amount of communication that is actually occurring is extremely low. In this “information age“, it appears that communication is not facilitating information exchange.

In this article, I try to highlight the problem we are encountering in communication in today’s world, and make some suggestions regarding solutions.


Communication must be defined by reception, and not by emission. If no one is listening to you, you are not communicating; if no one is reading you, you are not communicating.

For over twenty years, I have been working in companies all over the world, in which people have been complaining about communication problems:

  • Management doesn’t tell us what’s going on
  • We are overwhelmed with emails and don’t have time to read them all
  • Priorities keep on changing without explanation
  • Someone else was working on the same thing as I was and never told me about it
  • “They” keep on contradicting themselves
  • and so on…

Even though they may complain about contradictions in what they are told (or what they remember of what they heard), most people are quite happy to use contradictory statements about communication for themselves. They will affirm that:

  • “I am a good communicator: if you need something, just come and ask me and I will be happy to help” and
  • “You are a bad communicator: if you have information I need, you don’t share it unless I come and ask you directly”.

In today’s world, millions of people are talking and writing at any given moment; only a fraction of that amount are actually listening or reading. There are currently approximately 2 billion websites worldwide ( with an average of number of users of 3 or 4 per site; the number of emails sent at any given moment is astronomical (nearly 3 million per second) – unfortunately there are no reliable metrics of how many people are reading or listening instead of writing.

What was once perceived as being the solution has become a major component of the problem as team members spent half their day reading and responding to emails: they feel that they need to read and react immediately when they receive an email, or – in some cases – even get into trouble if they don’t read it immediately: I have seen managers sending out an email requesting someone to attend a meeting immediately.

Another proposed solution to the communication problem is to get rid of offices and place people in open-plan areas, based on factory production lines, believing that this facilitates communication. In fact, the open-plan office facilitates interruptions and loss of concentration; perhaps this is not a problem in some jobs, but most office jobs require reflection and concentration that is not possible in this environment. So, the people in the office start wearing noise-cancelling headphones and isolate themselves from all work-related communication as well as from the environmental noise.


Frustration and despondency grow rapidly as team members feel that they are not respected enough to know what is happening with their job; work is being done by the wrong people, or is being done multiple times by the same people. Team members don’t know where to find the information that they need when they need it.

The continuous interruptions for communication may be seen as beneficial in some work areas, but mostly they are extremely detrimental. The advantage of the open-plan and the continual flow of emails, means that many team members never really have the leisure to wonder why they are doing this and how this work benefits anyone.

At the same time, we need information (knowledge, communication) to circulate through the company by its very structure. Rather than structuring your organisation according to the antiquated principles of monarchs and barons (as most companies have done), a modern organisation needs to be structured according to the required knowledge flow. More about this, of course, in my book Orchestrated Knowledge.


How do we get information to the people at the right time?

How do we allow the knowledge held within the business to be used effectively?

How do we allow team members to be properly immersed in their work without distractions and interruptions?



There is no need to read, respond or even react to an email the moment it comes in. A basic principle is that an email should be answered within 24 hours, if it is more urgent than that, there are better ways: walking over, telephoning, or using one of the large number of messaging applications.

My general recommendation (and personal habit), is that you should only access your emails 3 times a day at most. In the morning, check what there is, what is important, what can be deleted, what needs a response or action; again in the middle of the day and at the end of the day. The rest of the time, switch off your email system completely (and yes, if you use an email system like Microsoft’s “Outlook”, you can write emails without starting up the app).

Knowledge Management

There are sufficient tools available on the market place that allow for a structured approach to information sharing and knowledge management. The basic idea is that, when you need some information, you can rapidly and easily find it. Lessons learnt can be integrated into the tool, as well as design decisions, requirements, best practices, progress reports, and other key components that people will need at various times. The main issue with these tools, and where most companies in my experience fail, is that it is not enough to purchase the tool, you also need to get an expert in who will take time to study your needs and problems and will set it up professionally so that you get the most out of the tool. Too frequently, companies get won over by an impressive pre-sales demonstration, then find they have no idea how to use it once they have paid for it.


Sitting down on a regular basis for a “one-to-one” with your colleagues and those who report to you, will allow you to have a focused conversation, that may cover more than work items. On average, I would recommend having a one-to-one discussion every day with a different person. This should be in their calendar and considered as an important meeting.

During the discussion, make sure that you listen as much as possible and talk as little as possible, especially with your direct reports. You should not use the meeting to give them instructions and demand progress reports, there are other meetings for that. This is a discussion to find out what is bothering them, what are the obstacles, concerns and worries. Make some helpful suggestions or recommendations, but make sure that these are just suggestions or recommendations. If the person has a serious issue, make sure that you follow up soon after the meeting.

One of the traps to avoid in these types of discussions (other than bullying your colleague, of course) is the risk of falling into psycho-therapy concepts and terms. It is important to make sure that you understand what is making your colleagues unhappy, what is motivating them, but you are not (I presume) psycho-therapists and you should not try to be diagnosing depression, hyper-activity or other disorders: the purpose of the meeting is to have an honest discussion and see how things can be improved in the work place.

One-on-one discussions need to be done in an atmosphere of trust. Your colleague needs to feel that you will not misinterpret anything, assign blame or use the contents of the discussion to determine levels of reward or punishment. This is a very big request and obviously very difficult to implement: most people do not really trust their manager until the manager has earned that trust, and you can only earn someone’s trust by knowing something confidential and be seen not to betray it. This is why I would recommend getting an external consultant to conduct regular meetings with key players. Someone who can be trusted to speak truth to power, but not betray their sources.

Office Space

The ideal office size is one in which a small team (5 to 7 people) can work together, focus, celebrate, discuss problems. The open plan office has been costed many times and the cost of the continuous interruptions on any intelligence-based activity is too high to be acceptable. Of course, having individual offices creates other problems and there is no point avoiding one extreme for the other.

A good working space would probably have offices for a half-dozen people all around the floor, each office with a window (if a hotel can manage to have a window in every room, so can your office building). Meeting rooms are available and are probably clustered into the centre of the floor, around the elevator shafts – meeting rooms generally do not need a window as nobody should be spending all day in there.

Maybe I will write more about environmental issues at a later date. The communication issue I want to cover here is that a team should be able to discuss or celebrate together without disturbing other team members who are concentrating on their work.


A lot of processes and procedures are written in most companies. I recently worked in an organisation that regularly produced “policies”. These were produced under the good idea that they were necessary, by different people, with little or no consultation, for various reasons. Some were created to please an auditor, some were produced to solve an immediate issue. Mostly, these policies were stored in different places, in different formats and were not appropriately cross-referenced or enforced. They were certainly not communicated to the people who should have been applying them.

Communication needs to have value.

The value needs to be perceived on both sides: “this is something I need others to know” and “this is something I need to know”. If the recipient does not see the value of the information received, they will not give it the attention that might be necessary. When preparing a communication, the author should

  1. Clearly identify the message to communicate
  2. Clearly identify the public or recipients who should be receiving this
  3. Make sure that the content is not redundant or contradictory with other communications
  4. Make sure that the contents are unambiguous and clear (for more on this point, I strongly recommend Tom Gilb’s books on Value Planning and Clear Communication).


Communication is not a difficult issue, but it is an extremely important topic and should be given careful consideration. There is value in getting key people to have one-on-one coaching sessions with an independent, external person on a regular basis (two to four times a year), who will have the ability to anonymize statements and tell senior management what employees might not want to say – including the fact that they are not sure what senior management is actually saying to them.
Take time to listen, take time to learn, take time to understand – the time investment is small, the return is never-ending.

Estimating Problems

For as long as I can remember, engineers, software developers, managers and sales people have missed their deadlines on a regular basis. This is a problem that has simple causes and possible solutions, but it requires a level of awareness that we appear to be missing in most of our endeavours. When there is variation between estimates, plans and actuals, generally:

  1. there is over-run, meaning the actuals are greater than the estimates and plans;
  2. the actuals are blamed and people are challenged as to why they did not meet their targets.

Frequently, the blame needs to lie on the estimating and planning rather than on the performance against the plan. It is time we took estimating seriously and started building appropriate risk management into our plans.

Clear Communication

One of the first reasons for bad estimating is the language problem. If you ask for an estimate, a forecast, a prognosis, a guess, a projection, a ball-park figure, a guess or any other variation thereof, you have (maybe) a clear idea of what you want and why you want it. Are you certain that the person to whom you are asking has the same understanding?


Every estimate is just a guess. Maybe the person doing the guess has a lot of experience, and has considered many options and weighed the probabilities, but, in the end, it comes down to a guess – no matter how “educated” that guess may be; in the end the value they give is probably wrong.

Data vs Experience

Obviously, we trust the expert, the person with the most experience, to make the estimate. However, we are not selecting the person who is best skilled at estimating, but the one who has done the job most frequently. The fact that the person in question has under-estimated the time it would take systematically for the past ten years, we will still trust them because they have done this so often.

One of the first steps that the expert will take is to estimate how long it would take her to do the job; once the agreement is finalized, the expert will be moved on to the next contract that requires estimating and the work itself will be given to someone else: the effort has been estimated for someone with twenty years experience, then given to someone with twenty minutes experience and we wonder why it is not completed on time.


The estimate, once it has been produce should be reviewed and corrected. Many managers (and less competent sales people) focus on cutting the estimate down: “why do you say this will take 6 months? We will lose the contract if we say 6 months, let’s change this to 4 months total”.

The intelligent manager (and the sales people who respect their clients) will review the estimate and find out what is missing, what are the risks that have not been taken into account, what is the worst case scenario and how can it be covered, how can I be sure that I am going to satisfy my client? Have you taken into account the average number of sick days in the team?…

Milestones and Commitments

So, you asked me how long do I think this will take and I said “probably not much more than a month”. Now, you have come back with detailed requirements and expectations that were not available when you asked the question and demand that I respect my previous “commitment” to finalize this work within one month, twenty working days. This does not take into account the work I am already doing, or the fact that your vague idea did not include all the additional bits of work you added into the requirements.

Milestones and commitments are necessary, but the order in which things happen need to be clearly understood:

  1. Document the requirements in as much detail as possible
  2. Establish the major milestones and include them in the requirements
  3. Ask for an estimate as to what would be the cost and probability of success to deliver the work completed within the milestones set out
  4. Make an estimate and negotiate the result: let’s eliminate some of the less critical requirements, move the milestones to make it more realistic, etc.
  5. Build a plan as to how the work will be done and the proposed final set of milestones
  6. Negotiate and move around more if necessary
  7. Make a commitment to respect the milestones.

It is folly or cruelty to request an estimate and transform it into milestones.


Monitoring the work being done on a continual* basis means that you can evaluate in real time the amount of work remaining. If the first three phases of your project over-ran by 20%, you need to stop believing you will complete on time: chances are your whole project will be 20% late.

Burndown charts, Gantt charts and others are traditional methods. If used correctly they are useful in monitoring progress; however if you don’t use your previous estimating errors to correct your future estimates, you will just keep on “snowplowing” more work against a fixed deadline.

*Continual means without interruption, all the time; Continuous means ongoing. You can continuously improve your work practices by rolling out an improvement every few months, you cannot continually improve work practices as that would confuse the workforce with hourly changes to methodologies and processes.


If your team is not delivering to estimates, it is probably because they / you are not as good at estimating as you believe. Don’t pressure them to work faster, that will only create more problems, give them appropriate training and support in making better estimates and understanding how to use data.

Conference Report: IT Days 2018

I have been going to Cluj-Napoca for a dozen years as a consultant and as a speaker at a number of conferences. This week I had the pleasure of being there again and delivering a keynote presentation on “Managing Complexity and Chaos in the Workplace” at IT Days 2018.

Casa de Cultură a Studenţilor

There were apparently 800 people written in to the conference, but that includes people working at sponsor stands and some who don’t show – it is still a lot of attendants for a town that size. If you do not know Cluj, it is the capital of Transylvania and a town that is heavily dominated by the software industry (I know, Transylvania and pale, pasty people… the jokes are too easy to write). Because of the relatively recent impact of 40 years of communist dictatorship, the IT community here is young, vibrant and eager – eager to learn, eager to improve, eager to do, eager never to fall back into the levels of utter poverty in which their parents lived.

Of course, at a conference like this, most of the talks are either technology based or in Romanian, so I admit I did not understand everything. After so many years working in the software industry, I should know more, but as time goes by, I know less and less about programming and the languages used. However, it is important to participate in conferences like this, and to listen to what people are saying whenever possible. This is where the future is coming to life. I do know that all the speakers have strict instructions to explain how wonderful their company is and only show good things, in the hope of maybe picking up a client or a new employee. As a consequence, they are promoting new technologies, new solutions, practical ways of implementing old solutions, etc. The jargon filters through these conferences and becomes common speech. In my job, I listen to people, I try to understand what are their problems are and so it is important to understand that jargon.

While I will not create a list of the talks and topics, whether I attended them or not (as there were 4 parallel tracks, I could not listen to everything, and certainly did not understand many of them), I did want to give a salute to the introduction by the mayor of Cluj. It is not often that I hear a politician or a business leader giving such a clear vision for the future. There were some points on which I would have like to challenge him, of course, but in general he appears to have understood the key problems of the town and is tackling them, starting with the main pain-points through infrastructure, development and collaboration between the city, the people, the businesses and others.

Emil Boc, Mayor of Cluj-Napoca

My talk was an introduction to complexity and chaos, and the Cynefin framework. It was well received and I was answering questions for some two hours afterwards – more to do with my work in communication and culture than with the framework. The presentation was filmed and will be put online in the coming weeks or months.

I also got to hear a presentation given by Sir John Dermot Turing, the nephew of Alan Turing (yes, I live in Bletchley and went all the way to Romania to hear a talk about the luminary of Bletchley Park). A fascinating talk in which Sir John demonstrated his competence not only on his uncle’s life but also relater to the research he has done on artificial intelligence and the evolution of computing.

It is always a pleasure to be able to attend a well organised conference, and an honour to be asked to give a keynote talk. Add to this the pleasure of meeting a lot of intelligent people who are eager to learn and it was a very good couple of days, indeed.