Being vulnerable is a strange thing. Its very context driven. It relates to you being out of your comfort zone, which is obviously very personal. Different people have different triggers.

My personal bête noir is having a general aesthetic. I’ve had to have a few in my time and I just can’t stand being on the trolley, looking up at the lights, hearing the chatter going on around me and knowing that whatever is about to happen, I will have absolutely no control over it and no way of influencing the outcome.

So imagine my delight when I was told in January 2017 that I had a tumour growing on the side of my head and needed to have a fairly serious operation under general anaesthetic. Initial biopsies gave an inconclusive result on malignancy and it was suspected that the tumour was ‘on the change’.

Things started to move pretty quickly after that; MRI, pre-op checks to make sure I was fit enough for surgery, careful discussions about all the things that could go wrong…… they all came and went within weeks. We were in a race to get the tumour out, in case it was turning nasty.

In all of this, I can honestly say I was sanguine about the risk of cancer. I had seen friends with serious cases go through successful chemo and transfusion processes and felt positive about the prospects. I was also comfortable about the potential complications post-surgery, as I was lucky enough to have a consultant who was honest with me, engaging and great to talk to. But there was still the ogre of the general anaesthetic to face.

I decided to take my mind off things by getting stuck into a book that had been recommended to me. It was ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed. It’s a wonderful book with some fabulous lessons for business, explained in startling clarity. Unfortunately for me, the first lines of the first chapter describe how a routine general anaesthetic goes tragically wrong and the patient dies. My ogre had just become a bloody great giant-chris- eating-beast- from-the- abyss.

Cue a series of slightly panicky contingency planning actions to protect my family from what was clearly now my impending doom. I refreshed the business strategy, wrote an updated business plan, briefed all my team on what was to happen if I didn’t wake up; gave instructions on how my family were to be cared for and re-wrote my will.

The day came for my operation and, reassured that I had done everything to allow for the worst case scenario, I went through all of the pre-checks and procedures. Final briefings were done, papers signed, undignified gown and stockings put on and the tumour marked with a large indelible pen to make sure we would get the right side whilst I was asleep…….What?! You mean you might get the wrong side?!!

And so to the anaesthetic room. Here we go. Heart starting to race, wave goodbye to my wife. Place yourself into the hands of the anaesthetist, consultant and all of the staff in the room. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. The thing was….that they were all remarkable people. They knew what they were doing. They knew how to handle idiots like me. They were calm, they were kind, they were patient, they were caring. I trusted them.

I’ll return to the operation and its outcomes in a bit, but it struck me that this situation has so many parallels with what I ask businesses and business leaders to do. I ask them to be vulnerable, to allow themselves to be open to challenge, to put their plans up for critique; often by junior members of their team.

I explain to them that its vital, if we are to find out where the risks are in their strategies and plans, to pressure test them and see where they creak. I explain that nobody can know everything, so lets use the people in the organization as a ‘combined intelligence’ to identify flaws, opportunities, and align internal stakeholders.

I explain that we used to do this in the military, even as senior leaders, trusting the views of the teams that worked for us, creating a ‘safe space’ in which we could allow their critique, but in a controlled manner.

Some people, in spite of these assurances, still struggle to be vulnerable. Many are really open to critique and see the benefits, but many aren’t. We talk about the need for them to trust their teams, but you can still see the nervousness it provokes in them. I now understand this better than I did before. Having to face my own vulnerability helps me understand how difficult it can be.

The outcome for me was a happy one. The results came back and I was given the all clear. Reflecting on this after a series of celebrations, it struck me that the operation I went through and the lessons it taught me might serve to help others:

  • If you want to achieve remarkable outcomes, you have to be vulnerable and trust the people around you to help.
  • Be patient with people when they are feeling vulnerable, build their confidence and help them face their ogres.
  • Live life likes there’s no tomorrow; put the throttles to max and enjoy the ride.

The Leadership PodcastRecently I had a discussion with some business leaders where I drew the parallels between strategising for business and strategising for a tumour for The Leadership Podcast. You can listen in on that conversation here: Embers in the Darkness: Pressure Testing Your Business

I am deeply indebted to the amazing team at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth for their professionalism and humanity, and to my wife for her ceaseless love and devotion throughout a challenging time for us both.


In September 2008, seated in the back of a hot, noisy Chinook helicopter flying into Helmand Province in Afghanistan, where I was to take over as head of planning for the military and civilian operations for the entire province, I never envisaged that over 400 fighters had bypassed the outer bases of our ‘safe space’ and were ready to attack.

The military aim in Helmand at that time was to create a protected zone in which Afghan Government and USAID / DfID staff could work.  The intention was to win the support of the local people and subsequently assist the Kabul government.  Our predecessors had done a superlative job of fighting to establish this safe space and had set up a series of bases that acted as an outer defensive barrier to protect it.

Everything we did in planning and preparing for our deployment revolved around holding this protective barrier, improving the stability of the safe space and building on the success that had been achieved to that point.  We believed that we knew exactly what we had to do and had considered what might go wrong, including attacks on one of the outer bases.  We also considered what would happen if we weren’t able to bring sufficient government & civil aid to the safe space, leading to loss of support by the local populace; which would have been devastating.

My own base, at the headquarters, sat in the very centre of the protected zone.  On the fourth day of the tour, before my force was fully in place, the 400 insurgents that had bypassed the outer bases began shelling us with rockets and mortars whilst their foot soldiers launched a coordinated ground attack.

How we coped with the situation and the actions we took to survive on that day is an interesting case study in crisis management.   More importantly, it provides lessons from a business continuity perspective.  How could we have improved foresight and identified the potential for disaster before it occurred? We were in the military.  This is what we did for a living and yet we failed to identify a key threat to our business continuity.

Over the course of my military and business career, I have had a wide range of experiences related to business continuity, from working at the strategic level of government, to supporting global corporates, to being in a 4-man commando team deep in a combat area.  In all of this eclectic life experience, I have observed one consistent trait; all organisations, regardless of sector, work with what they know, and rarely step back to challenge their understanding/model.

The tendency to focus on the familiar, rather than the unknown, is described with precision in ‘Bolt from the Blue: Navigating the world of corporate crises’ by Mike Pullen and John Brodie Donald. With a tongue in cheek reference to Donald Rumsfeld, Pullen and Donald capture the framework as follows:


The ‘known knowns’ are the issues that surround daily life in the organisation:  cash flow, supplier agreements, marketing, salaries etc.  They can be mapped out and managed and virtually everyone across the organisation is aware of them.

The ‘known unknowns’ are the standard purview of the business continuity experts:  cyber threats, fire, flood, theft, loss of electricity or loss of use of the building etc.  These are issues that the organisation is aware of, has a plan for, but cannot predict with any certainty when they might happen.

The ‘unknown unknowns’ is the classic lightning bolt.  Nothing can help you specifically prepare for it. Nevertheless, a crisis management plan should be designed to cover for such an eventuality, because the need for response and preparedness remain, regardless of perpetrator.

My Helmand province experience sits in the fourth quadrant – what Pullen and Donald call the ‘unknown knowns’.  These are elements that some people within the organisation are aware of but haven’t communicated them.  These unknown issues are a ticking time bomb which, in hindsight, could have been predicted and included in the business continuity plan.  Either through organisational culture, governance or casting a blind eye, they simply do not come to light until it is too late.

In Afghanistan, my organisation fell into this very trap.  We focused on what was in place and predicted what we felt was likely to go wrong.  Whilst we developed good contingency plans, we did not challenge the validity of the model we had been given, nor ask colleagues at all levels for their views.

We concentrated on preparing for what we knew and did not look to expose gaps in our knowledge.  There were individuals who had become aware that the outer bases were not a solid barrier.  In fact, the insurgents were able to bypass them in civilian clothing with no issues.  There were also people who were concerned that the focus of combat power on the outer bases left a dangerous vacuum in the ‘safe space’, but their voices were not included in the planning.

The exercise that we used to challenge our thinking before we deployed to Helmand was a ‘business wargame’.  Whilst this is a highly effective methodology for a comprehensive test of any issue, the mistake we made was to not include sufficient representation of individuals who were on the front line of the protected zone at the time.  This meant that we were only testing our own understanding of the problem, instead of challenging the status quo and questioning the facts as they were presented.

I have seen and participated in Business Continuity exercises for a range of companies and organisations.  They are invariably impressive in both extent and rigour, but only test the existing measures, i.e. how well do our current personnel entry procedures stand up to a penetration test, how can cyber criminals get around our current defences etc.

The parallels between this approach and the situation I faced in Afghanistan are striking.  As businesses and organisations, we need to get away from preparing to deal with known problems and what we are used to, and instead take a step back.  We need to challenge our Business Continuity Plans, using a wide range of individuals from across the organisation and those external to it.  This enables the potential understanding of how and why plans might not be ‘fit for purpose’.  In doing this, planners move from a templated fire/flood/terrorism response and instead identify the issues that are bespoke to the organisation, include questioning the status quo and re-evaluating areas which need advanced preparation.

By drawing in the wider expertise of the whole organisation and questioning existing norms, two significant outcomes occur.  The first is the improvement in the Business Continuity Plan, to ensure it is fit for purpose, not merely relying on a false sense of current thinking.  The second (and arguably the more important factor) is that by drawing the wider members of the organisation into the identification of problems surrounding business continuity, internal advocates are created for business continuity and the channels for thinking of potential issues are broadened.

The key therefore is bringing about controlled challenge to our plans; being unafraid to pose difficult questions, to discuss their ramifications and how to mitigate the effects. Unless we step back and challenge the status quo, business continuity plans will remain unable to provide the ‘safe zone’ in which businesses are protected.


One key thing stands out whenever a company is struggling: they’re unwilling — or unable — to plan beyond the most obvious and easily predictable scenarios.

In contrast, smart companies are going beyond the obvious.  They are not only improving their foresight, allowing them to identify potential major events, they are creating an organisation that can adapt to just about any crisis.  Its not that they want to be different; they have a burning need to be different.

Among these smart companies, I have noticed several key traits that set them apart:

Being open to challenge

The traditional view is that admitting gaps in knowledge is a leadership weakness, but in my view it is a considerable strength.

When I was a Royal Marine Lieutenant Colonel, I was responsible for coordinating the strategy to get all of the UK’s combat troops and their equipment out of Afghanistan.  I had to pull together the programme on which bases to close, when, and how to hand them over to our Afghan partners. I had to chair the debate on how to get the life-protecting equipment out, without increasing the level of personal risk for our people left on the ground.  All of this across several thousand miles and through/over/around multiple countries.

To have tried to do this on my own would have been ludicrous.  Even with the brilliant team I had around me, we knew full well that try as we may, we wouldn’t be able to think of everything.  One of the key tools we used to open ourselves up to challenge was wargaming.  This gave all stakeholders a mandate to challenge the plan to its limits, open up issues and identify where we had missed things.

Smart companies are using the business wargames concept to challenge their own plans and look beyond the immediate. As described so well by Eric J. McNulty in his article for Strategy + Business, leadership in volatile and uncertain environment:

calls for questions — lots of them. Penetrating questions that ferret out nuance. Challenging questions that stimulate differing views and debate. Open-ended questions that fuel imagination. Analytical questions that distinguish what you think from what you know. [This] will help you see patterns and make more accurate predictions. As a leader, you must encourage open, direct feedback as well as ideas that challenge the status quo.”

Embracing unpredictability.

The immediate response of leaders facing volatile environments is often to draw lines in the sand and impose boundaries on the problem, reducing it to easily digestible chunks.  As human beings we long for familiarity, so a structured and organised approach to the problem is comforting.  But unpredictable environments morph and evolve; they do not conform to structure or to boundaries.  The outcome is to leave the Leader looking out of their depth, as they attempt to maintain control on an unravelling situation.

Instead, as described by Paul Kinsinger, leaders in a volatile environment need a mindset in which they embrace unpredictability, thriving on the open playing field it represents.  It is in such an environment that opportunities in innovation, new markets, collaborations and new products exist. This outward looking, positive style of leadership reassures people across the organisation that its leaders are moving with the problem and tapping into its opportunities. The sense of confidence it generates is infectious.

When I decided to leave the military, I had three broad choices.  I could go and work for a large corporate, trading the comfort of one big organisation for another.  I could find a smaller company that was growing well and jump on to enjoy a more risky ride. The third option was to really go for it and set up my own company.  I had no business experience and no ready-made pool of clients, so option three seemed crazy, but I backed myself and went for it anyway.  Its been the best choice I ever made; the ride has been incredible.  The uncertainty and unpredictability has been invigorating; it makes me feel more alive every day.

Accepting that the plan will not always work

The phrase ‘no plan survives contact with reality’ remains as valid today as it has ever been.  In Graham Kenny’s article ‘Strategic plans are less important than strategic planning’, he argues the case for a plan being more of a guide than an absolute. He also states that leaders should “assume the plan is a work in progress. A strategic plan is not a set-and-forget instrument. It’s a living and breathing document”.

If leaders in a volatile environment refuse to shift away from a single, unalterable version of a strategy, not only will they find themselves failing to achieve its objectives, but losing the confidence and loyalty of the staff around them.

From a human perspective, mistakes are inevitable, but even more so in a fast-paced environment.  Often, this leads to a rebuke and chastisement, but this only leads to risk-aversion and decision avoidance.  If however, mistakes are treated as learning opportunities, not only is a positive culture generated, but the organisation becomes far more agile.

Did the plan for getting UK troops out of Afghanistan work flawlessly and remain unaltered from the day we finished the first version?  Of course not.  It had to be constantly adapted and amended it as situations changed in the conflict, export agreements between countries were cancelled then re-initiated or political imperatives altered. Everyone was eventually brought home, and the necessary equipment recovered, but not in the same way as we had originally thought. The best part though?  None of the senior leadership turned around and complained that the plan hadn’t been accurate at the outset.  There were just complements on a job well done.

Communicating and collaborating

In a volatile environment, it is vital that leaders create a sense of collaboration across their organisation.  To do this, they need to be open and engaging with everyone, building a sense of rapport and trust. Honesty and humility are two key traits required in this approach, building a sense of community.  This allows leaders, staff and their peers to support one another, identify potential ‘stove pipe’ issues and prevent resource fratricide.

The military are particularly skilled at ensuring this collaborative approach to planning is valued and practised at all levels.  They are also keen on precise communication.  In his article for HBR, Colonel Eric G. Kail said:

“Buzz words, catch phrases, and one-liners fall flat in a volatile environment. A great role model is Winston Churchill. A fantastic communicator, he once said “the small words are best.” Anything over three syllables didn’t make his cut and neither did any statement that was not direct. Save the pithy slogans for your marketing campaign”.

The team ethos I was inculcated with in the military remains with me to this day.  The biggest lesson I pass on to the companies I now consult with is the need to work together.  To get away from departmental silos and stop seeing the organisation as an engine in which everyone is a ‘cog’ that does their specific job.  Allowing people to interact, to learn from each other, support one another and build mutual trust is exactly what smart companies are doing.

The good news is that the above traits are not some holy grail, out of reach to most.  They are simple building blocks that virtually any organisation could develop. You just have to have the burning need to make it happen.

I am deeply grateful for the advice of Jeff Haden in the editing of this post.  If you would like to know more about how Quirk Solutions Ltd helps organisations deal with uncertainty and volatility, please feel free to get in touch via our website or in a comment on this post.

It’s interesting where work can take you sometimes. I recently found myself providing consultancy support to a task near Uralsk in the north west of Kazakhstan.  I have to say that initially I wasn’t looking forward to the trip.  I imagined that an area so remote would present some infrastructure and logistical challenges.

I was also concerned that the timing of the trip wasn’t good.  The uncertain environment created by the Brexit vote had yielded lots of clients wanting their business plans to be tested by the War Game method; many of them ramping up for financial presentations to senior management / Boards in September / October.  I knew it was potentially going to be challenging to keep track of demand whilst working out of Central Asia.

The reality was an enjoyable kick in the pants, and a reminder that preconceptions can be dangerous.  Kazakhstan is in a phase that one of my friends would describe as its ‘goldilocks period’ i.e. there are significant opportunities and sufficient infrastructure to make things happen, but not many companies are present because they believe the environment to be too austere and risky.

So for me, lesson #1 from being in Kazakhstan was: Don’t listen to the chatter or people’s misguided perceptions on things….go and see for yourself what opportunities exist.

I spent a lot of time during the task being driven around the Kazakh steppe.  The scenery had a hypnotic and absorbing quality, with enough subtle variations that it never became mundane, but nothing so remarkable that it broke your train of thought.

With little connectivity to the outside world during these drives, I found myself, for the first time in a long while, able to let my mind wander without diary pressures.  I took the chance to think back over the last five years; time I have devoted to building Quirk Solutions Ltd to where we are today.  I reflected on the successes and failures I have been through and what I have learned.

I came to the following conclusions:

  • I need to sit back and think more. The time is Kazakhstan had allowed me the space to pause.  To think. To make some considered decisions instead of rushing to act. It has been so positive for me that I will continue making the time for ‘head space’ when back in the UK.
  • Over the 5 years of running the business, I have learned (the hard way) that there is a balance to be struck between determination to chase an opportunity down and chasing mirages that ultimately come to nothing. My time in Uralsk had allowed me the space to differentiate between those organisations contacting us merely out of curiosity, and those who were actively in need of our service offering to cope with planning in the post-Brexit environment.
  • Things take time; be patient. A client wants a sense of relationship, not to be bounced through a transactional and high pressure sales process.  Getting to know the client first and not rushing things, means that the client gets exactly what they want, not what you think they want. The breaks in connectivity that I had in Kazakhstan actually enhanced this approach – it forced both sides to slow down and helped to grow relationships more gradually.
  • Encouraging those around you to challenge you, your thoughts and plans is healthy. I have a lot of time & respect for Nick Massey and what he has achieved, so when he recently got in touch to say he felt wargaming was an ideal mechanism for testing business plans in the post-Brexit environment, it gave me a reinvigorated mandate for action.

Its true that the outcome of the EU referendum has been a considerable upheaval in what we know.  But, much like my preconceptions of Kazakhstan, you’ll never find out what opportunities lie in the post-Brexit ecosphere unless you go and look for yourself.

Then, with some time to think, to identify the real opportunities, some patience and a degree of healthy challenge, who knows where you could end up?  It could even be a small town outside Uralsk.

If you would like to disrupt your thinking and use our capability to improve your business plans in this uncharted environment, visit our website or contact me or one of the team directly.

Ron Ashkenas, writing in HBR in April of 2013, stated that 60-70% of change initiatives fail. He goes on to describe some of the reasons, one of which is the woefully underdeveloped ability of management to implement change.

Stress testing is a tool that should be considered key in addressing this issue, and one which serves to underpin the chances of success. Stress testing has long been used by the military (who call it wargaming), to test and evaluate ideas before committing resources into action. It is designed to stretch plans and strategies, to identify where risks lie, where contingency plans need to be considered, and where opportunities exist that you hadn’t previously considered. It is a growth area across the commercial spectrum and in a range of forms.

Traditional commercial planning considers market conditions, stakeholder behavior and other factors in depth. However, it tends to only address the situation at the time of planning. Such a static approach fails to adequately take likely future dynamics into account. Stress testing deals with this; it allows you to simulate how conditions will develop over time as well as assessing stakeholder’s reactions to your moves. It looks at stakeholder interdependencies and predicts likely outcomes. It can be an integral part of a building a new strategy/plan (e.g. market entry) or as a standalone tool to verify an existing plan.

Predicting where you are likely to have to make decisions in the future, what those decisions might be and how you might address them is obviously a great boost to any business. However, this is just one of the benefits of stress testing; the real art is in the effect it has on your team. If facilitated correctly, the test puts teams through a common experience, under a degree of simulated pressure. This builds bonds and coherence amongst your staff. It also generates cross-functional understanding of each other’s capabilities and limitations, which makes the company more agile, more efficient. The fact that it is so engaging, so dynamic and so all-encompassing means that it is enjoyable, rewarding and informative for everyone involved.

Stress testing therefore doesn’t just help you plan for the future, it builds appetite for change and appetite for success within your teams. By being part of a test, staff understand the change that is going to happen, feel they have had a part to play in it and want it to succeed.

Shell recently used a stress test to analyse their programme for decommissiong the Brent Field in the North Sea and came away with nine pages of learning, that will help them develop their approach to its implementation. It appears they have learned the benefits of testing their plans and others would do well to follow suit.

In today’s unpredictable oil price environment, the focus is on survival.  Plans are made, based on what Management already know and using previous experiences as a benchmark.

With my previous Military background, planning for the UK Forces in Afghanistan, I recognise that even a well-structured plan seldom survives first contact with high explosives. Likewise, Oil and Gas leaders hoping that their plans will survive contact with the volatile 2016 global oil market may be on shaky ground.

We only have to look at the high street to see how a changing market can have catastrophic consequences.  Woolworths and Blockbuster failed to predict the impact of a low price environment, combined with consumer preferences moving to the internet; both companies are defunct as a result.  Conversely, John Lewis recognised the issue early enough to adapt and innovate.  Their answer was to build, rapidly, an on-line capability which has achieved remarkable results; 40% of John Lewis’ sales this Christmas were on-line.

So, how do we improve foresight and increase the rate at which we can adapt, to take advantage of opportunities?  Not just surviving, but thriving.

The answer is ‘controlled business challenge’.

This means severely testing not just your own understanding….but that of people around you, others in the industry, and even in related industries.

These people have deep reservoirs of experience. They have all sorts of ideas on how to adapt and innovate; they just need a safe environment to challenge conventional thinking and for management to extract their ideas.

Get them into a room, and don’t let them out until you have pushed each other to the limit, in a safe environment. Allow people to battle for their point of view, defend it, attack others and try to disrupt conventional thinking or traditional plans.

Through this level of real pressure and by challenging paradigms, you’ll get to a point at which you all feel exposed or extremely uncomfortable in your lack of knowledge. Eureka moment! This is where the gold nuggets are hiding.

These gaps in knowledge and exposed feelings are where you can innovate, where the space exists for new ideas.  It is also where the ‘indicators and warnings’ exist, i.e. the things that will help you foresee a crisis before it strikes.

Companies like Shell are making use of this concept.  A little over 18 months ago, I helped them run a challenge session on one of their projects.  We assembled 30 people in a room for a day, some to represent the project, others to pose challenge to it.  The process was new to them at the time, but they adapted rapidly and the outcome of the day’s session was 9 pages of learning for them.  This has helped shape their approach to the project, analyse risk and understand potential contingency requirements.

I realise that this is very different to what we are used to; we prefer the comfort and reassurance of familiarity, tending to stick with what we know. But trying to do the same thing as we always have, just a bit better, isn’t going to help – this is the path that Woolworths and Blockbuster took.

If we have the courage to go beyond the familiar, to feel exposed and challenged, to acknowledge gaps in understanding and test ideas to the limit of credibility and beyond, then we get closer to a more accurate prediction and draw out the innovative ideas that will see us thrive.

It has tangible benefits too.  A client’s internal teams were generating too much activity, which was preventing them delivering quality outputs.  We went through a controlled business challenge with them, which resulted in a 40% cut to their weekly activity, dropping things they had previously seen as vital, but were now recognised as superfluous.  This allowed them to focus on the quality of the 60% of activity that had a value add to the business, and deliver it at a higher standard.

I realise that what I’m describing may be a step too far for your team and for some budgets. At a minimum please at least adopt the ‘controlled business challenge’ mindset among your senior team: Be disruptive, be critical friends, but above all don’t toe the line!

This is going to be a tough year for all involved in the Oil and Gas sector, be it as operators or supply chain, and I’d like to see you all survive and thrive throughout ‘lower for longer’. Good luck!

In a lunch I had recently, the conversation turned to the fact that my lunch companion was a self-admitted ‘goal setter’.  He felt he had to set objectives for everything he did and always got a sense of achievement out of meeting each and every one.  The way in which he described it though, also made it sound as if he felt it was as much a weakness as a strength.  This got me to thinking whether quantitative targets are always a positive thing.

There is no doubt that objectives, targets and KPIs etc are of significant benefit.  We are encouraged to make sure our objectives are SMART, i.e. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant/Realistic and Time Bound.  This helps to provide focus and drive. However, I would contend that there are times when organisations or departments should more heavily weight rewards for needed behaviours, then once right behaviours are achieved, outcomes can be more heavily rewarded.  As an example, a target can be something like: ‘Produce 90 Heats of Steel per day in the QBOP mill’.  However, this may neglect upstream inputs and downstream bottlenecks if behaviours aren’t collaborative.  Another way to phrase the target could be ‘Effectively plan heat production with upstream and downstream departments’.  Once effective collaboration is in place and embedded as a behaviour, then the quantitative target of 90 heats/day can be set without the negative impacts upstream or downstream in production.

Taking this a step further, what would happen if, on an infrequent basis or on an appropriate issue, we just set the ‘compass heading’ for the direction we wanted our organisation to go in?  If we combined this with providing people with clear delegation / parameters in which we were happy for them to work autonomously, would we find that they actually surpassed any targets we would have set them?  Some of these concepts are usefully explored in Stephen Bungay’s book The Art of Action.

In the Harvard Business School Working Paper by Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky and Bazerman in 2009, the authors argue that “the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

In addition to the above, I think that perhaps there are Human Performance factors that ought to be considered.  Do people start to slow down as they approach attainment of highly specified targets?  If that quantitative target wasn’t there, would they have gone further?  Is meeting a quantitative goal so stressful and all-consuming that it is damaging to people’s health and well-being?  Would giving people a sense of direction and encouraging the behaviours we seek to develop a more efficient and more effective organisation?  Does setting highly specific goals or targets actually narrow the organisation’s perspective?  Would more be done on a wider scale if people weren’t driving towards a single point?

There has been plenty of reaction to the HBS working paper cited above, with many leading theorists defending the use of targets.  I am not advocating a polarised debate.  I also feel that a discussion on ‘targets’ is too wide a definition, hence my focus on quantitative, Balanced Scorecard type goals.

What I am suggesting is that perhaps, from time to time, we could consider just how far people would go if they were not set a specific and measurable target; if it was left down to them to determine how far they could get along a ‘compass bearing’, which we could then set as the reward.  At the very least, it would be an interesting way to assess employees and their motivations.  Can we consider a framework in which the ‘non-discretionary’ aspects of an organisation are set to specific and quantifiable targets but the ‘nice to haves’ are more behaviour focused?

I also invite you to consider, in my opinion, the most widely misused quote in ‘measurement’:

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the visionary business scholar who transformed the auto industry, said, “…if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it…”   This is technically true, but if you take the ENTIRE quote, this is what he actually said in full: “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.”

Quite a difference the start and end of a quote make!

Why do companies tend to go to an external consultancy to solve a problem, when the people in your team already know, in depth, what the issues are, why they have arisen, how they could be mitigated, and what the solutions are? Some consultancies can rightly claim to be experts in particular fields, but they still don’t know your culture, ethos and team inside out.  External consultants have to spend a significant amount of time getting to understand issues that your team already know. This will be followed by production of a plan, developed by the consultant with the aim of helping you, but one which ultimately few people in your organisation understand, buy into or agree with.  Resistance to change sets in, the plan falters and all that has been achieved is a hole in your working capital.  According to articles and research in HBR, 60-70% of change initiatives fail and this statistic has remained relatively constant since the 1970s.  There is clearly a need for a refreshed approach to problem solving and change.

One answer is perhaps to use your people better.  My experience in the military gave me a thorough education on making the most of the team I had. I clearly wasn’t going to be able to know everything there was to know about all of the specialisms and the daily realities of the issues they faced, so I relied on my team to advise me.  I didn’t tell them what to do.  Instead, I described to them what I wanted to achieve, the manner in which I wanted to get there and the delegations I was willing to give them.  They would then go away to come up with their own plan as to how they were going to achieve the objectives, within the boundaries I had given them.  Stephen Bungay articulates this approach more eloquently than I ever could, in his seminal book The Art of Action, particularly with regard to ‘alignment and autonomy’.

This approach allows you to retain control of the direction the organisation is going in, how much risk you are going to accept and what you are seeking to achieve, but provides your teams the freedom to consider the actual problems, propose solutions and use their collective intellectual and professional ability to best effect.  It also allows them to adapt and be more agile when problems arise.  It is your people that best understand the daily frictions and realities that will stymie new initiatives, or ways in which to overcome them.

Such a consultative, collaborative approach requires a certain style and ethos; one in which you are seeking to encourage people to their best efforts.  Also, by involving them in the planning of a strategy, project or programme, you significantly enhance its chances of success from (a) a technical perspective (i.e. a reality check on what will/won’t work) but also (b) a behavioural performance perspective.  By allowing people to have their say, you align thinking, improve understanding of the issues, the objectives and the manner in which they are going to be achieved.  Your people are therefore prepared for the change, but more importantly, they own the change and want to see it succeed.

I’m not about to suggest that the above is easy to implement.  It isn’t; and its difficult to do on your own.  Nor am I saying that consultancies are irrelevant; that would be rather ill-advised from someone who runs a consultancy!  External advice and input to help objectivity and can often be the catalyst for change that long-ingrained behaviours need.  All I would suggest is that when you use external consultancies, select those that will help you make the most of your own people and leave you independent in the future.