Two elections that few expected and a majority didn’t want- the information perspective.

Two groups of people mastered the truth about data, its interpretation and it’s presentation and two groups didn’t. The former of course are Republicans in US and Brexit’s in UK.

The theories are not new, nor are they difficult to understand but executing on them might only seem an option to somebody with no other options (Trump, Farage). Most people would never dream of applying for a multi-million pound loan and filling the entire application with fiction. It’ not because they believe it couldn’t be done, we’ve all seen it done, but because they were not brought up like that. They still believe they have other options and they won’t make that move to the dark side.  People who did it and often did it successfully were generally people who had no other option and didn’t see the downside. In banking there have always been checks and balances, but in media there has always been a weakness and right now there is a total void where the media used to sit. Enter two people who had no right to talk to us and simply couldn’t win. Donald Trump and Nigel Farage and look what happened.

Why did they win?

Nobody buys newspapers much less reads them any more and old fashioned journalists have hanged themselves by their braces long ago. There’s no revenue stream any more to sustain them, for what little use they might have been once and now we have instead, social media, polls (much the same thing) and personal content filters all very much for sale to the highest bidder and very controllable.

As IT professionals, we have always had to operate in a tricky area between less than perfect hard data collected from disparate systems or countries and the jazzy punchy little reports and dashboards that our paymasters dine on to excess.
Let’s be realistic, hard data is of little use to anyone, it’s only when the great unappreciated droves have cleaned it , sense checked it and translated it to comparable terms and then turned it into consumable visual bites that decision makers can grab it and do something useful with it, like selling a lie often as not.
When I see an email proposing a radical new strategy on the grounds of the figures in my reports I can sometimes pull somebody aside and caution them on the potential for error in the data or point to a conflicting KPI and suggest further checks. This type of scenario is part and parcel of business life in the world of IT.

Lets’ now take  a look at the world of rigged polls, injected social media, wholesale unapologetic lying and presentation that appeals to the baser emotions of fear and mob action.

  1. Destabilise the enemy by kidding them that they are doing better than they really are and encourage them to focus their attempts in the wrong places. Easy and very effective.
    I’m not sure that Farage had the budget or reach for this one, but it was certainly a central part of the Trump strategy and clearly explains why the bookies did so well. Read about Colonol John Boyd’s OODA loop to learn the basis for this strategy. Ask any social media consultant how to do it.
  2. Fill the media with mountains of lies about the enemy, begin by raking up a few real stories to set the scene, wait a few days for people to stop questioning that and then pile it on thick.
    For some good examples of this in action check out
    In the UK voters were incensed about legislation preventing the sale of bent bananas, (it never happened)
    They were told it would mean hundreds of millions per week spent on the health service, all immediately denied after election day. The list goes on and on.
    Why is it easy to find and cultivate these knuckleheads? Because Facebook, snapchat and others have detailed profiles of their entire lives and everything they discuss, read, think, say do, even the therapists they visit. Finding a numpty on Facebook and sending him to kill the president should be a doddle ( I didn’t give you the idea by the way)
  3. At the last minute create a powerful picture to capture the emotions of the more  ignorant layers of the electorate and plant a semi-subliminal message that appeals to the baser emotions i.e. massage the “lizard brain”.
    Nigel Farage’s posters were so blatantly aimed to incite civil unrest that there were well supported calls for him to be charged with this offence. On the day after the election, people of foreign birth were accosted on the streets around Britain and told to “go home”.
    In Florida, Trump’s “swing state”, Trump supports were seen on election night chanting “Lock her up”. The Canadian embassy crashed under the load of applications to immigrate and the flood of Mexicans going home in disgust continues.

In both cases, before the vote had been fully counted, the claims were being refuted and the lies were being reneged on.   No “Lock her up”, but tributes to her commitment. No “Go home”, or even close the borders in UK.  How far the reversals and denials will go on both fronts is yet an unknown, but nothing would surprise me mainly because the stretch room is usually very small once they find themselves in the reality of office.

So what is the lesson?

  1. Don’t rely on traditional media to be guardians of truth, what’s left of these are either state owned or in the pockets of the multinationals that own the politicians.
  2. Do I need to say it? Don’t expect politicians to tell the truth and don’t assume they have the same values or standards you do.
  3. Opposition parties ( that means both sides) have to guarantee the truth by monitoring and refuting media and actively and aggressively bringing liars to justice before and after the event. We all want the truth to be spoken, especially on important subjects and that is one of the things we will all agree to pay for and support politicians to achieve for us, so join the winning side for once and promote truth and honesty in media by attacking lies and dishonesty and supporting those who stand for truth and honesty.
  4. For god’s sake, or whatever you believe in don’t believe everything you read in social media, especially if it’s controversial and even more-so if it agrees with your predispositions.
  5. Make sure you defeat the personal filters to get alternative views of the world, use proxies or VPNs to hide your location and see a different view of the same thing. Ask a teenager if you don’t know how.
  6. Take responsibility for your own mind and for your decisions and actions.
  7. Don’t stay silent and let the liars prevail, it’s now a community affair, so speak out and have an impact on the balance of opinion. This way we can all help to keep society safe
















The trap of settling for mediocrity

The trap of settling for mediocrity

Without boring you with a treatise on macro-economics, I can only get my point across by saying that, not only is every professional and tradesperson in our world challenged to know less and possess fewer skills, but most business we are employed by will have not a single individual who understands what the business does from end to end even at a fairly high level. I have met more than a few CEOs who didn’t consider it important to them to understand the business they were charged with, but focused on a small handful of KPIs to get him out of jail this year.
The guy who scans a label and uses another tool to locate the good, before handing it to someone else to pack and pass on to the loader . . .  is no less dumbed down than the Financial controller who receives the chart identifies the KPI and barks out an instruction via email.
Mediocrity is everywhere and it is tempting to succumb to it but if you are not seduced by warnings of the long term damage to our world then pay some heed to this:

Skill and competency is 98.5% self-esteem and 1 % knowhow, the other stuff isn’t even worth talking about. Although I have never met you, I know without any fear of contradiction which of these you most fall short on. The reason I know is that a confident person can be taught almost anything while others can make almost anything go wrong.   Have you ever noticed how football players go on runs of scoring and always return from a lean patch to push the boundaries even further.  The tool they are using is deep seated self-belief.  Sure, some aspects of this are probably learned from Mom and Dad or even inherited in their genetic make-up, but don’t start making excuses again. The world is full of superstars who had no running start and plenty who got their inner strength from facing adversity.

Average is a dangerous illusion

All my life I have sought relaxation, release and inspiration from games of chance. I know the numbers and I totally understand what you have to do over the long haul to come out ahead. I am happy to say that I have been coming out on top since my early twenties and if there is one thing you must learn if you are to stand a chance against bookmakers, poker players, or any other adversary it is this.  The averages are the things that make you profits, but to achieve an average that keeps you ahead you have to perform above average by a good margin at all times. You don’t just need a margin to win by, you also need a margin for error.  Then it all works out like the good book says. Sadly it is true that the level we aim at is always a shade higher than the one we actually achieve

Average, for all it’s flaws, is above and beyond the capabilities of so many and only because of their mind set. The Peter Principle : Why Things Always Go Wrong Paperback – August 19, 1998 was and still is  a master class in systems thinking.
Peter observes a phenomenon we are all familiar with, i.e. that once people begin on the promotion ladder, they will then, as members of the hierarchy, be promoted until they reach a level where they are totally incompetent.    Naturally this comes as no surprise to the reader, what still seems to surprise many is that the outcome of this apparently innocuous behaviour dictates that everybody in charge in too many businesses, then and indeed today is incompetent to some degree. Had I made this statement before presenting the evidence, you would have dismissed me as a crank and convinced yourself not to listen, or found another escape, but now that you have read this far, surely the conclusion is inescapably true even if the reasons for such behaviour are overly forgiving in many texts.

The average, therefore, is not only something that describes systemic incompetency, but over the long haul, it is indeed the result of settings ones sights somewhat above that level. Are you still content to get up tomorrow and set out to be average?
At the end of every good lesson is a stiff test and here is yours: What did you take from this little blog?

  1. The world of business is messed up and there is no point in even trying, what can I do?.
  2. The world of business is full of incompetent people, the opportunity for competent positive people has never been greater.

You can mark yourself on this one

Confirmation bias at the speed of light

The extraordinary world of the trader really opened my eyes

Image result for halo effect

Most readers will already be aware of confirmation bias and will no doubt believe they have it under control. Good for you. If however you are trader, or gambler the likelihood is that you have got it down to a fine art and it has become a heuristic behaviour.  What I mean by this simple, is that you’ve been doing for so long and become so attached to the theory that you are smarter than the rest, that now your brain does it in auto-mode without your intervention or even awareness.

Recently I spent some time developing trading tools for people earn a  living trading movements on a betting exchange.  The betting exchange, for those who are not familiar is a simplified clone of a stock exchange and is very similar to currency trading .

Some of these people act as bookmakers accepting bets form the public, while others simply trade the movements in the market or “SCALP” the market.
I was amazed to hear bookmakers of some standing use the phrase, “ Let’s get this one beaten”.
Quietly testing the intent of this over a period of time I realised that they actually associated their attempts to attract money and lay the runner with the runner losing.  Naturally they would never admit to it openly and they all know that such a thing is impossible, yet they daily select a weak runner and go about betting against it with the hope that it will be beaten and regularly it loses and bit by bit the brain has begun to associate tis intent and action with the outcome. Given they will be laying an 8: shot that really as a 1 in 12 chance of winning, the see it lose 11 times out of 12.
What is happening here is the brains own “Inspect and adapt learning process”, taking what it sees at face value and jumping to dangerous conclusions.
For years renowned physicians dispensed useless or even dangerous treatments to unsuspecting patients while convincing themselves and the patients that it was having a positive effect. After all, some of these people recovered. I wonder how much of this still goes on?
Economist and ex trader Max Keiser recently did a TV show on economics where he talked about stock traders believing they were changing the economy by their actions when in fact they are simply gambling with liquidity against other traders.
The UK government has been conspicuous in their inactivity in terms of fixing the economy, or even banking since the crash. They have sat back and conserved the status quo for all intents and purposes, yet George Osborne makes speeches in which he associates his office with a “reported “ improvement in the economy. Has it improved? If so, has it improved beyond a possible “ gently rising tide”?  Does he actually believe it?  What do you think?

Given the power of such self-delusion, would it be a shock if we found traders fixing things like exchange rates, or would it be far-fetched to imagine it might then stretch to bribing politicians and officials.
If those same people had gone into the munitions business instead of banking, do you think they might find a way to start wars? Do PMs and  generals ever admit that they achieved nothing ( best case scenario) or created a catastrophe?

Systems thinking

Negative bias the damage it can cause

Specialist in Smarties, Chocolate Beer consultant, or Expert in customer complaints from Obese women on Tuesday afternoons.

Are you a specialist?
By the way these specialisms do exist and I have no doubt you could add to my collection. If you want a light hearted look visit this article.

As an interim connected to the technology world, I get a lot of calls and emails from recruiters and over the years the, the most notable change is the degree to which these people expect me to be specialised. Why, I wonder, did I spend five years studying the subject to get a broad and deep understanding and then spend the next ten deliberately learning the different aspects of the industry on the ground. This is what we did, what every professional did.  Do you know a lawyer who can only handle attempted fraud by Orientals on diabetic white Americans living in London on Fridays?  I doubt it somehow.

The need for specialisation is the back-bone of economic theory
If you are drawn into a discussion about why some African states have failed to develop a modern economy despite being richer in resources than we are, you will generally find yourself in two separate discussions: One about availability of capital ( An Adam smith fan) and the other about specialisation, or lack thereof.  Given that many of these economies have weak currencies, micro-loans can now finance substantial start-ups and there has ever been more lost money ( for want of a better description) looking for a legitimate looking home, so arguments about lack of capital no longer work. The problem is inability or unwillingness to specialise. The scenario: I grow vegetables, hunt for meat, make my furniture from bamboo, make beer from fruit and find herbal medicines when I am sick.  I am always poor and I lack equipment and skills to do all of this stuff well.
Far better, if I could just grow vegetables and swap some with the hunter for meat and with the carpenter for furniture.  Each could enjoy a margin because of their specialist skills, tools and experience. That is the fundamental theory that still underpins economics. For some reason, in some places it is slow to happen.


It gets boring just placing the full stops at the end of sentences, can I have a real job?

The problems rarely lies with the client who needs help, but with the  recruiter who calls himself a “Consultant” but is in fact a commission only salesman who last year was an Estate agent or rather a  “Property consultant”  and knows as much about what I do and what my potential client needs as I do about life on Mars.    For an insight from a legitimate HR person have a read of this

The problem begins sometimes because the client who either doesn’t really know what precise skillset would be best for his needs and either by habit or misconception expects a recruiter to help with this problem. What a very large error that is.
A rough guide goes off to the recruiter who then places adverts via an “autoposter”. This tool is preconfigured and whacks his advert out onto numerous job boards where his agency has accounts.
He then instructs a resourcer to do some searching on the main databases, e.g. Jobserve and Jobsite for IT and these are imported directly into the system and emailed with a standard mailing.

Now the fun begins. The resourcer has not yet been promoted to recruiter and is supposedly learning the business by pouring through millions of CVs starting with keywords searches Now we have identified the first problem.  Just like Google SEO, if you want to appear in the SERPs you must include the keywords.

I sometimes help businesses to profile skills and to shortlist  CVs, so I know just how tricky this can be even for a seasoned professional. A resourcer, or a recruiter with no grasp of the IT profession or the task at hand stands no chance at all. It is simply a random matter of chance whether or not they find a remotely applicable CV and it is no more or less efficient than asking Siri or saying “OK Google” to your phone.
If you’ve ever engaged an agency, you’ll be familiar with the bombardment of pointless CVs and then the ever more pestering phone calls for feedback and pressure to hire.  There is a reason why it feels so pointless, it mostly is exactly that and there is a reason why it is so expensive, all that pointless effort has to be paid for. Don’t be deluded by commission only, that is always the most expensive purchase. If you have two agencies at work and one has submitted what they think are strong candidates, they well be calling every other candidate in the market pretending they are submitting them in order to rule them out for the competition.  Don’t kid yourself that there is efficiency in this.
Why am I telling you all this?

The reason we are being driven to specialise is to a large degree so that recruitment agencies can understand a tiny bit more about what we do.
Let’s face it the way to make it big in recruitment is to specialise in Saturday morning perfume demonstrators and get them all in your database. Easy to understand, no search issues, you can truly be a specialist and maybe even a consultant and all is well with the world.
The problem is that IT doesn’t work this way.  Every system that is implemented impacts and is impacted by many others, all different and employing different infrastructure, protocols, languages, data structures, security arrangements and so on.  You can’t simplify IT to suit your needs and every attempt to do so has ended in tears. Understanding the IT impacts is only the final mile, before that you have to understand the process impacts and manage the stakeholder culture and much more. All of this is heavily entwined and all absolutely unavoidable and critical. When you need a specialist to solve critical problems in your business, ask a specialist for advice not a recruiter.

The evils of groupthink and the risk to all Social media users

AKA “ Say hello to someone”
Power to think
The most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.” NYtimes SUSAN CAIN JAN. 13, 2012

Power to innovate
No great life-changing, or world-changing invention has ever come about as a result of market research. Whatever the agile evangelists tell you, the reason for success in this area is not what they think it is. Asking the customer is important but it is not innovation. It is a stark and unavoidable fact that when Henry Ford asked a carriage owner what he needed from transport, he replied along the lines of; ”A horse that doesn’t foul the road”, or “A nice warm fire in my cab”. He never mentioned anything resembling a motor car and he never would either.
Try to imagine our world without the legacy of Henry Ford
In fact I would argue that lack of this type of thinking is why we have moved from the single blade razor to two, three, four blades and who knows where this will end. No there is definitely nothing much to be gained by innovators from hanging around in large groups or spending their day exchanging messages of one sort or another or asking customers. Watching customers is different, but that’s a different blog.

Decision making power
Making decisions is the toughest part of running a business, a department, a team. It is tough because if there was a safe answer it would not need a decision. Let’s face it if you are in a room on a cold winter’s day and the door blows open allowing rain and cold wind into the room, nobody needs to make a decision about what to do, now do they?
Decisions happen when there are several options and imperfect information and someone needs to make a call. Decisions involve risk management and playing the averages, but most of all they require taking responsibility and having the confidence to do so, i.e. leadership.
So what happens when you ask a committee to make a decision? Well the commonest thing is that they decide to close the door, just after the last piece of furniture has blown away and the rain has shorted out the electricity, but often they make no decision, or if they all belong to a particular religion, group, union just about anything could happen, it could end in a brawl. If there is a bully in the group they will guess what he wants and pretend that is what they want, but he won’t of course be accountable. The simple answer is don’t do it if there is any other option. Fake it if you absolutely must.
“In big business and national politics, groupthink has emerged as one of the most damaging spectres of our time. Unquestioning corporate cultures have been blamed for scandals ranging from Volkswagen’s emissions-test rigging to the sexism controversies that have surrounded Uber and American Apparel. Last year, commentators accused hive minds on social networks of scuppering open debate in the run-up to the UK’s general election. But does groupthink always require such a large canvas to flourish?” Economia 22 June 2016

Power to compete
Is there any industry left where it is not an accepted policy (among the group) to recruit from within the industry and close competitors? . If you believe Volkswagen were the only ones fiddling the figures you are even more naïve than I could have credited you for. Check out where the senior executives of all the other Auto businesses learned their trade and developed their MO and you will have a map of who else is doing it. The fact is that behaviour patterns, but especially abuses spread like wildfire across industries and then gradually leak outside. Why? Because to continue with bad behaviour, it has to become accepted as the norm. You don’t need me to make a list, everyone has a huge list of such behaviours they could rattle off, if you are stuck, just start with a google search for “*ism”.
Competing in any market in the modern uber-competitive environment demands that you differentiate strongly and then communicate this difference effectively. Naturally it has to be a difference your customers value, but we have limited space to fill today . . .
Imagine how successful you will be at differentiation if all of your thought processes are shared (perhaps hourly) with your competitors and you can’t remember the last original thought you had?

Power to recruit
A note from the head of business change to HR reads:
“ I need a consultant to help with this important programme of change. Find me someone from within the industry, we need someone who will fit in with the culture and . . .”
The only organisation I ever worked for that is no longer around used to do exactly this. Their Achilles heal was that they were all from an industry where they had never learned to make decisions, but whenever they sought an outsider to help them, it began with “You guessed it “.
Social media could well be the most destructive force in modern times
Let’s forget about politicians playing to the baser forms of humanity just to get votes and all the evils we are forewarned about. Think Brexit, Trump , I’ll leave the list to you.
When is the last time you saw a real conversation happening on any social media platform? Well I can answer it for you with a fair degree of confidence. The answer is either never, or not for a number of years. Let’s ignore all the Hootsuite jockeys and other fakes dumping garbage on to the internet all day every day and those paying a King’s ransom to look important, the remainder are following the “groupthink” approach to social media in their sleep. Pretending to be interested in the things they are pretending to be interested in so that they appear to fit the imagined norm and
saying the things they guess the other “normal” people would expect them to say, or rather believe they are expected to say. I hope I didn’t confuse you. You could struggle along with these thoughts for a few minutes and probably end up dizzy, or maybe you’d prefer to grow a few brain cells and “say hello to someone”. Here is the big secret waiting to get out; when they are not faking it, they are all human just like you, they are just scared to let it show. That is my new theme for the remainder of 2016, “ Say hello to someone”. Or just in case you haven’t been paying attention: communicate

The health warning attached to agile is nothing more, it’s not a reason to ignore agile thinking as a powerful tool.

As a manager who entered software engineering as the agile movement was gathering pace and returned to management in the systems world, I find it amusing when other disciplines jump on the bandwagon as it were. I also find it encouraging, but I would have serious concern if it were my business and here is why:

  1. Agile is not what journalists say it is

In much the same way that we probably misinterpret and ingratiate many movements,  Agile is credited with a lot of stuff that was never  though t of,  never intended and for the most part never happens.
A bunch of software engineers (several in several places) to decide how they could “take back control” of the software process in business.  They knew the power thy held in their hands, but could see more and more of it ebbing into middle and senior management determined to make them “blue collar”.  At the same time service businesses like IBM and Microsoft were looking for ways to reduce the paperwork and improve communication in the software transaction. The two things were married and produced a clever, but unruly child that requires careful monitoring and constant praise.  Agile was never a strategy, but a bun fight and it is far from over.

2.Fiiddling with KPIs is not changing anything.
 In my early days as a marketer I was taught that if you are not meeting KPIs, it is easier to fiddle with the KPI than change your behaviour. This is a fairly universal principal of business and nowhere is it more fitting that the world of software.” I want it and I want it now, but I am not sure what it is and couldn’t communicate it to you even if I did . In any case, what if it doesn’t work?”  I’ll claim you didn’t deliver and /or you didn’t do it right. That is the scenario driving software engineers to do away with specifications and contracts and make the product owner responsible. Unfortunately, what they didn’t spot until too late was that in doing this, they sold their souls and became blue collar again, but that’s another story.  Now they estimate in Tee-shirt-sizes and look upwards and to the left as they declare how many tee shirts they completed this month. If they don’t like the design they simply say it can’t be done or will cost too much. That is roughly where the tyre meets the road toady

3. A racehorse designed by a vet and an art student will make a very ugly camel at best

I was a product Manager for a few years, it is a natural progression for a marketer cum software engineer and I know some of the best around the globe. Some are redundant and others struggling. Why? Who needs professional when you have the seat of your pants? I am not suggesting that Agile teams with a nominated Product Owner can’t or don’t produce good stuff, simply that; successful products need a market sized opportunity, or it matters not how good they are, products need to meet an unmet need and to do it so that they are a more attractive proposition that their competitors and so forth.
What I am getting at is this; iPhones are successful because they were driven forward by a brilliant visionary who had the courage to show us what we are missing and make us love iPhones. Bill Gates did this for the PC. In an agile world neither of these products would have happened.
The iPhone would have been an ugly mishmash of half-finished features rushed out to an imaginary deadline and reflecting the current tastes of the Lead developer and the Product Owner, usually in that order.  I suspect the PC would have been a typewriter with a glass screen and a coffee holder.

  1. Lying in the water and thrashing your arms about is not swimming.
    Anybody who seriously wants to make a change for the better needs to start not with the technology, but with goals, develop strategies and work their way down to the details of how.  If that happens to be agile, wonderful, there is then a powerful chance that you will make it work.
  2. Beware the evangelists, many are trainee terrorists

Understanding the shortfalls of anything is the first sign of expertise and even love. Don’t fall for the preachers they have alternative motives. Somethings and some teams lend themselves well to agile, but not everything and worst of all, when a good agile team has been doing the same thing for a year or so, they are no longer agile, they are simply where they were before with slightly different rules and rituals.

  1. Agile is a state of mind not a book or a methodology and must be championed and driven form the top down by people who know what they are doing and why they are doing it.

How much damage can negative BIAS do to performance and quality of life?

Whether a manager, a sports person, an investor, or a dustman It is vital to understand our personal bias and manage it .

Every decision we make requires some level of objectivity to stand a good chance of serving us well.
“You’re faced with around 11 million pieces of information at any given moment, according to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The brain can only process about 40 of those bits of information and so it creates shortcuts and uses past knowledge to make assumptions”
 A large part of each decision will utilise principals and strategies that we have developed over time. Without these assets we could not function, our thinking would be just too slow
It is nevertheless also the case that alongside of these positive assets we  develop bias that is not helpful or positive.
e.g. an Employer with race or age bias will miss recruitment opportunities resulting in lost production and opportunities. Its probably impossible to be human and not collect some of this negative bias, but it is possible and absolutely crucial to know what your bias is and be vigilant. Thats a different thing from beating yourself up over it. You’re human, you’re allowed to be imperfect, but if you deliberately fail to do what you know is the right thing, that is another situation altogether.
– A footballer who always gives up at the last millisecond against bigger players and limps off apparently injured with a “losers limp”.
– A poker player who gets over ambitious every time he wins and then loses big time.
– A recruiter who dumps CVs with 10pt or smaller type and misses some of the best talent.
– A golfer who panics at the top of the back swing grips and swings down with all his force running out of energy, line and balance long before it gets to the ball and will often continue to do this for his entire lifetime.
A belief that bigger people will be stronger, or more aggressive is a common misconception.
Believing in the god of luck instead of the mathematics affects all kinds of people, even statisticians can fall to it.
Being too lazy to adjust the type size before printing is unbelievably common, as is struggling with weak eyesight without seeking help.
Focusing on the map instead of the territory or vice versa is universal.
These are very easy problems to cure, but some can be a little tougher.
Here’s the simple map: 
1. Recognise and admit that you do it and the cost to you, or spot opportunities to leverage it in your favour.
2. Work out how to confront your negative bias head on.
3. Recognise any influences that work to maintain the bias.
4. Keep on until the habit is replaced with the right behaviour.
5, If you can’t get rid of it entirely then simply keep checking for it and adjusting.
6. Play to your strengths and expose yourself to the situations you are best at.
How to watch for and recognize personal bias.
Look at the things that went wrong recently, track down the bad decisions you made that lead to them. Be brutally honest and replay the decision process to see where it went wrong. There, lurking in the shadows, you will often find a negative bias driving the bad decisions.
Another useful tactic is to ask close friends or colleagues that you trust. Be prepared to be shocked.
Finally look for the classic forms of bias:
Confirmation bias: Only looking where you can be confident of finding the thing you want to find. Or seeing what you expect to see in spite of the evidence.
Anchoring: My only tool is a hammer therefore every problem looks like a nail.
Halo effect: This works in football so its bound to work in the kitchen, or I am good at A so I m bound to be good at B.
Overconfidence: I am so good, I cant be wrong, don’t question me, or advise me. If I accept help, I will look weak.
Groupthink:  It’s important to fit in with the others, especially the cool ones.
Outdated:    Clinging to principals that once were sound, but are now damaging. (That includes situations when you are right)
How to confront personal bias head on.
It may not be easy, because the driver behind a bias will often be an emotion such as  irrational fear, hatred, greed, etc. Fear is by far the most common of these emotions. The other very strong candidate is peer pressure i.e.  you have this bias because all the members of your peer group have it and it is part of the acceptance criteria. Sometimes it is conditioned from an early age.
How to identify the influences and counter them
The footballer in our example could join a boxing club and realise that he can easily hold his own against much bigger guys, but smaller ones can be very good. That would be a way to get rid of the irrational fear and open the door for a more confident player that went the last yard with full commitment.
A sound strategy that counters many forms of bias is this; when you have time to do it, seek a conflicting view to yours and study it. Either it will strengthen your conviction or it will open your eyes. In either case you will reap big benefits. An easy way to maximise this affect is working with your team to arrive at joint decisions and acting as chair. This externalsies the process for you and develops your team at the same team.
Ask yourself how friends and colleagues in your circles will react to your changed behaviour. Often you will recognise the source of your bias as a peer group who reinforce the bias. This can be a tough decision, but sometimes one of them has to go.
Often one of these bias’ will seem to be part of who you are and you are reluctant to change, but that is simply untrue. Bias changes over time all on its own without your intervention except not always in a positive and helpful way

How to keep at it until you win
Don’t expect miracles, you will slip a few times, but focus your thoughts on the positive outcomes you are expecting to achieve. The moment a negative thought about it begins in your mind, immediately replace it with something pleasant, or even downright naughty, but zap that negativity. When you make a mistake, pretend you have just had a triumph, celebrate and reward yourself so you stay positive. If you can find an admirable role model that will help an awful lot.
Once the benefits begin to accrue it will become a no-brainer.
How to be vigilant
Lets say I’m an investment manager and I handle billions in investors money. I have somebody data mining my trades to point out to me when a bias appears to be forming. He rushes to my desk and he says: “You have sold a day too soon on 70% of hour trades since last Monday, is there something you need to talk about?”
I think it over for a while, we look through the figures and I see that I had a heavy loss a week ago when I held on too long. I had been warned about the potential effects of a certain political situation and blamed the error on being too optimistic. I have been running scared  since and selling in panic.
Poker payers call this “On tilt”, For most of us, it is unfortunately part of our untutored makeup, but it is deadly in the world of a dealer and won’t do the rest of us any good either.
Once I know it exists and I can see the cause, fixing this is easy. I just watch the charts, follow the rules, feel the fear and deal with it.
The real damage that negative bias does is rarely mentioned
To fully understand how important this  subject is, you heed to delve a little into how the brain works.
Learning is a process of:
1. Observing our environment and absorbing communications and stimuli,
2. Making sense of the information we find is a process of comparing new information to stuff we already have stored away and passing it through filters to find out how we will classify it. These filters are made up of strategies and principals (positive bias) and negative bias. These are applied in the “fast thinking” subconscious part of the process. Consciously considering it all and applying logic.
3. Deciding how to classify the new information and whether we want to keep it?
4. Acting on your new knowledge means using it in the real world and this  is the final step in learning.  The problem here is that unless you are capable of honestly and objectively examining the feedback, your learning process is already broken and you are destined to swamp your brain with destructive conflicting rubbish.
How you classify information will govern whether or not you are able to reuse it. If you are carrying around filters that are wrong then you will spend your time rejecting valuable information and misclassifying critical knowledge. The damage continues and escalates.
Finally, when you act upon your new information and look for feedback, you will accept stuff according to your broken filters and the other broken bias such as conformation bias, group think and their mischevious friends.

Managing our personal bias is as important as brushing our teeth, but the rewards are much greater. It’s not about not making mistakes, it’s about watching out for them and taking action.
A video made by Google is revealing.
Word or concept associations in dictionary form is a key part of how humans store and retrieve information.
The speed at which we are able to memorise these associations  is far superior to any other form of information storage and retrieval.
Speak the name of a country and most of us can instantly reply with its capital city. It comes naturally.
When we make an association between grey hair and age or age and frailty, or obesity and laziness etc etc, we are then sowing the seeds of bias that is neither useful nor  helpful.
Take the controversial IAT test to help you discover your bias.

Communication skills for project managers – Presentation skills


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 Read Part one    Read Part two

Presentation skills – Part three


As part of a series on soft skills for project managers, last week I wrote a section on communication skills. It may seem that it is a little odd not to include presentation skills as a communication skill and I will certainly not argue with this. I have also delivered a section on persuasion skills separately for the simple reason that these are key skills that require individual treatment as opposed to a short paragraph in a single blog about communications, also because it would be impossible to give communication a reasonable coverage in a single instalment  and because in the world of Project management,  lot of people will associate communications with the communication plan as opposed to recognizing it’s importance in an every day sense.

Critical for project managers

Charts used in project management

In my early days as a project manager I survived some very gruelling relationships with programme managers and sponsors as a result issues around presentation and reporting and since then I have seen other project managers and  Business Analysts driven to distraction by bosses demands for reports that they could understand.
Not only do the normal rules of presentation apply, but the project manager also needs to be able pinpoint the concerns that stakeholders need updates on and exactly how they can be reported to in order that they feel satisfied and comfortable. Above and beyond all other aspects of project management, this one is critical to survival of the project manager.

First of all you need to try and reach an agreement on your KPIs at the outset, or as soon as possible. KPIs can vary quite substantially for example, you may be in a situation where budget is critical and the critical factor is that you don’t go over budget. In this case the stakeholder will need very reliable KPIs to warn you as soon as you begin to slip. In this instance EVA might be a useful approach.

It allows you to plan a cost schedule for delivery of the product over time and plot against that costs accrued and value created so that you can easily see when the budget exceeds target or the value creation misses it’s target. Creating a simple graph and explaining it carefully to your stakeholder may be the perfect way to give her a warm and comfortable feeling about the project.

On the other hand you may find that this idea is a good one, but your stakeholder just doesn’t understand graphical reports and you have to grind it out with columns of data and a slow painstaking presentation. See paragraph on styles. The safest way is to prepare your props to be ready for all types of communication and be aware of the reactions of your audience so that you can switch modes if needed and place the emphasis on a different method of delivery when it is required.

One rule is universally applicable to project management. Responsibility for the audience understanding the message correctly lies with the project manager.
Ed Taaffe

If you ever find yourself tempted to blame it on the denseness of your audience, you are very close to the time when you should consider an alternative career path. The buck stops with you.

Progress against schedule.

Gantt chart

The great universal way to represent this key KPI is the ubiquitous Gantt chart. They are the most used tool by project managers and mostly because they are the one thing that allow you to combine data with a graphical view in one place.
The Gantt however, has many weaknesses. Not the least of it’s weaknesses is it’s ability to cram too much information into a small report. Unless you audience have the ability to drill down then most of the information it shows can be as good as useless.  The fact is that very few people have access to a tool that will open and manipulate these files.
The commonest mistake made by PMs is to assume that their audience also have spent years working with Gantt charts and understand them well. In reality very few people are entirely confident with them and some of those have oversized opinions of themselves, the remainder are generally embarrassed to admit it i public and sit quietly nodding. These people will come back to haunt you.

The next common mistake is to assume that your audience are interested in performance over time, they may be worried about risk of slippage against budget, or looking for indicators of inaccuracy in your forecast.

Slack, and accuracy of prediction

A great way to analyse and communicate the accuracy of your predictions and show your progress against these is the PERT chart.

Pert chart

The pert is fundamentally a network diagram that shows your key products being deliver, or milestones being met in the order that is necessary. It demonstrates the difference between products that depend on others and products that can be delivered independently, thus creating a critical path.
The critical path is the longest route you can take from start to finish of the project. This is extremely important to be aware of, because the tasks that make up this critical path can not be delayed without delaying the project. Provided the time needed for each task in the critical path has been sufficiently estimated for in terms of time then the project will hit it’s target.

Estimation of the critical path is done by entering three settings for each task or product. The settings are Optimistic time (OT), Pessimistic time (PT) and most likely time (MT).  By manipulating this chart a little you can very easily display the best and worst case scenarios and keep a close eye on the most likely completion dates.  The commonest calculation used to start out with is:

ETA =(OT +4* MT + PT)/6

It should be clear by now that the message delivered by the PERT chart is very different form the one delivered  by an EVA graph or a Gantt.

Progress against budget

To present a report on your project’s progress against budget, one of the easiest graphical tools is an EVM chart.

EVM chart
EVM or Earned Value Method  is a fairly simple way to compare the  projected use of time and budget with the actual use of time and budget for the work completed. It is very easy to see a project delivering on time and not notice that it has used too much budget in doing so, or to see a project that is within it’s budget profile, but has not delivered sufficient value with the budget already spent. In both of these circumstances, the project will eventually run into trouble.  Without EVM or another tool to keep track, it is almost impossible to reassure stakeholders that ll is well.

EVM start out by defining milestones in terms of work done y date within cost and then records actual time, cost and work completed  to determine whether the project is on target. The tricky bit with this method is estimating the value of work in progress for incomplete products. Even a poor estimate at EVM will still provide a clearer view into the project’s true state than relying on Gantts and guesswork and should help to reassure your stakeholders.

Traffic lights

Traffic light report

RAG for red, amber, green is a very simple yet powerful way to report on a programme or portfolio so that people can quickly get a feel for the state of play. A simple dashboard can contain one clock for each project with just the three settings. A quick glance will then tell the stakeholder whether there are issues and how big they are likely to be.
Red reports will need detailed reporting, while Amber reports require a paragraph of explanation.
RAG reports overlaid on a programme PERT can be a very powerful tool for seeing instantly the likely consequences of a localised issue on the overall programme.

Innovation and customisation.

The key to good communication is to get to know the requirements of your audience and customise the delivery to suit them.  If there is no well trodden method out there then don’t be afraid to ‘innovate. Analogy is the key so create pictures and sounds that help them compare the subject to some concept they are more familiar with. Traffic lights, measuring jugs, barometers and all types of household concepts are regularly called on for help.

Critical to all presenters

There some rules that apply to everybody called on to make a presentation and here are a few of the key issues. The most important bit starts before the presentation. Prepare, Prepare, prepare. It’s that simple. Do your preparation well in advance so you can put it out of your head for a few days and then look at it again with a fresh viewpoint. Never deliver an important presentation for the first time to important people. Get some opinions first from knowledgeable people or a small subsection of your audience.


PowerPoint and it’s equivalent have become an institution in the business world.  It has it’s fans and it’s haters, but it is still indispensable in many situations.  The key to using PowerPoint well is to use it only as a central roadmap for your argument and only for the visual aspects of your presentation.

NEVER write out your speech and read it out form PowerPoint, especially not with clever little animations on every line.

NEVER substitute PowerPoint for a paper or brochure or for speaking t your audience. Each communication tool has its own job to do.

DO stick to one idea per screen and one image per idea and limit text to one line per screen.

DO use your slides as a roadmap for your presentation

DO write out your presentation and practice it using the slides as your cue cards. Write extra notes in for your own purposes if you wish.

DO provide separate handouts that include your slides AFTER you presented NOT before.

DO use your slides as a backdrop and engage the audience directly, not via reference to the slides. YOU are the presenter  not PowerPoint.

DO agree in advance whether you are inviting questions as you go or you are providing for fixed periods when questions can be floored.

Presentation Structure

There is a very simple set of rules for presentations that work well and are easy to follow, here it is:

Start middle end presentation technique

It’s very simple and proven.  Introduce yourself and the presentation by telling them what your goal is and how you are going to do it then sum up what you have told them.

E.G.  My name is Ed Taaffe, I am an expert in presentation techniques and I intend to make you more confident in presenting to your stakeholders by walking you through some very simple but effective tools for making your presentations more successful.

Then show them the examples and finally close the presentation by saying something like.

So today we have seen three key techniques used by pros all over the world ton make their presentations more effective.

  • 1. Understand your audience and their needs and use analogies that will appeal to them to explain the concepts that concern them.
  • 2. Use a good mix of visual and oral delivery and encourage questions in a controlled way
  • 3. Use reports for written presentation, use PowerPoint for visual delivery and use your own presentation skills for oral delivery. The right tool at the right time in the right way.
  • 4. Prepare well in advance and seek and pay attention to feedback at every opportunity.
  • 5. Project management throws up it’s own unique communication challenges, be aware of these challenges and don’t be afraid to innovate to get your point across.

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Planning for project managers.

How important is planning?

Planning is critical. Without planning there is little chance that you can every complete your project, let alone complete it on time.

The act of preparing a plan, if done correctly, will uncover the issues and risks, provide the bulk of key data for your estimation efforts, provide a clear view of what resource is needed when and lots more.

It will also help to discover the dependencies that may exist with other projects and activities.
Once prepared, the plan gives the team a better view of how their efforts will come together and points out the need for communication in critical areas.

How important is the plan?

Much less important than the act of planning, but still very important. The reason I say this, is because:

1)  It is rare to be able to complete a first draft plan and then not have to make any adjustments.
Most plans develop as they go along and reach a baseline when well into the project timeline.
The most obvious examples of this are projects that involve investigating a problem designing a solution and then finding suppliers to deliver it.
You can allow extra time at the start in the hope that it is definitely too much , but even then, the chances are that you will end up adjusting your plan.

2) Risks and opportunities are a part of every project plan. Sometimes risks come to fruition and they affect the plan profoundly, sometimes opportunities come along that are either too good to miss and causes change of requirements, or  reveal a cheaper, or faster way to get it completed.

In either case, the initial plan will have changed. To live in denial of this as many commentators on project management still do, is a huge mistake and will always be counterproductive.

E.G. If you become so obsessed with meeting a specific date that you are prepared to pare away key features, there is a strong likelihood that the project will fail entirely. The answer is to treat the plan as a guideline and treat planning as an ongoing task.

I recently had this same discussion with a group of seasoned Venture Capitalists and their view was this:
They would never dream of setting out without a plan, but once they had it in place, they may as well tear it up, because it had already delivered most of it’s value and from here on in, it was more about managing the risks and spotting the opportunities.
They were unanimous in the view that to slavishly stick to that plan would be suicide virtually every time.

Starting a new venture is much more volatile than starting a project, but it is also higher pressure with greater risks and a lot more to lose.  They don’t actually tear up the plan of course, they adjust it and maintain it, but the discussion served to get their point across that management is about managing and adapting on a daily basis, not stubbornly following a plan just to prove that you were right.  Read Maseena Zeigler on forbes about this subject
Managing a project should be driven by the business case in the same way that a new venture is driven by reaching a profitable trading position at some point.

Critical also is the acceptance that like a start-up, many good projects are based on a strong hunch and a bit of a gamble for a wothwhile prize. This is enterprise nd without there would be no paydays.  project managers haven’t earned indemnity from this either. 

Features – Deadlines -Budgets – ROI

Here’s where it all happens.  A project will have a goal and that goal will usually be a financial one though success is not always measured in financial terms.
For the sake of this example I will assume that the project is a cost cutting exercise with a specific financial aim. Right at the beginning, the same ground rules should have been laid down such as;

  • What saving are we aiming for?
  • What investment are we willing to make?
  • What is the maximum our budget can rise to, or the minimum our savings can drop to.?

This latter question is best answered in terms of ROI and in fact, in most commercial organisations the answer will be worked out on the basis of how much ROI exceeds  “Cost of Capital” in order to qualify the project as “best use of capital”. The critical thing is that it is agreed in advanced and set up as the target.

Once this understanding is in place and the variances have been explored and allowed for, the business case should clearly show the expected returns and the tolerances that are allowable.

The project now has an ambitious goal (maximum realistic returns) and realistic allowable variances. The importance of these variances is not to make the project management team relax, but to assure the sponsors that their investment is relatively safe. Projects set up this way rarely fail.

MSF, the Microsoft flavour of project management introduces a very useful concept known as the project triangle. It is a simple triangle with the three corners being occupied by Features – Resources – Time.project triangle

The significance of the triangle will be obvious to any mathematicians reading in that only one corner of a triangle can be fixed unless you want all three to be immovable.
This is why the prioritisation of concerns is a valuable part of stakeholder alignment. If stakeholders are allowed to follow their natural instincts and demand that all three corners are fixed (two fixed corners means the same thing) then there is no room for the project management team to steer the project out of trouble.

A realistically aligned project will choose one of  Time, Features or Resources to set in stone and the other two will remain free to move.  This way, if time is fixed, then a PM can choose between increasing resources, or decreasing features in order to hit the target (ROI). The decision making process can also be agreed in advance.

This example is one of the simpler ones, but it is indicative of the ills that beset many projects right at the beginning and rob them of any real chance of succeeding, or being seen to succeed.

Defining the scope/budget/resources

Once again, with the ROI in mind and the statement in the business case that based on initial studies, there is a strong likelihood of success, the task now arises to define in more detail the features required to deliver the expected benefits.

Having defined the features, accurate costing has to be worked out on the basis of supplier estimates, internal efforts and other costs, with adjustments for risk, all of which will rely on your emerging plan.
Another sanity check at the end of this planning phase should check whether  the cost and time estimates are still within the constraints initially set for the project and whether it has a healthy amount of slack remaining to see it through to a likely successful completion.

This exercise of working up plans from draft to more detail as the work progresses from an outline business case through to a detailed contract with suppliers and a detailed plan of implementation with all the appropriate slack allowances  and a rigorous risk assessment will often take up half of the lifecycle of the project, or even more and some projects will be abandoned when it becomes obvious that there is little likelihood of success.

The number of “stage gates” (sanity checks) should be agreed at the start on the basis of how well known the territory is and how volatile the estimation is likely to be.

The illusion that a project board can put some dates (when we’d like it done) and amounts (how much we’d like to spend) on an A4 sheet at the beginning of the exercise and that perhaps a year or more later, a project team will deliver exactly what was asked for on that sheet, within exactly that amount and on that date is really a surprising error of judgement, but it still happens and contributes strongly to the list of project failures that appear on the Standish report and other investigations.

How to go about project planning

Planning should always be done by starting at a very high and general level, involving experienced big picture thinkers and applying a sanity check before then drilling down not too far to the next level  detaiil to repeat the exercise.
Planning should always resist the temptation to go into great depth in one specific area while remaining at a high level on others with one exception.

If there are unknowns, e.g new concepts that might not work, then proof of concept should be carried out as soon as possible to avoid having to abandon the project or change tack after a great deal of money gas already been spent

Plans should not be in extreme detail a long way in advance, because the likelihood is that when that time draws closer you will find yourself redrawing them and the effort has been wasted.  As planning continues to drill down, a plan should be retained for each level of detail and when the detail highlights an error in the high level plan, as it frequently will, then the high level plan should be adjusted.

The commonest method of estimation to begin with is to break the project down into products.

These products can in turn be broken down further until they reach a level whereby they can be more easily estimated and planned and later assigned to teams.

Out of this comes a product flow diagram that describes the order , if any, in which these products must be completed in order to take account of interdependencies.

Calculating critical paths ( the longest path you can follow) through the products and then amongst the products, the project manager can get a much closer view of the true schedule of the project.

Using PERT to make a high level allowance for uncertainty adds a further level of sanity check to the emerging plan.

Some of the issues that commonly affect project plans drawn by the unwary include:

1. The calendar is not taken into account when calculating for tasks in the plan, e.g seasonal breaks, Summer holidays and other disruptions that happen every year.  Key personnel  disappear and dependencies become critical.
Make sure you discuss each team members responsibilities and schedule with them and get agreements.

2. Suppliers work to their own schedules and regardless of what they agree,  they will place commercial concerns first and may not follow your plan.
Ask them for their plan and question to satisfy yourself that it is thought through. If you  lead, or take part in the contract negotiations, try to place some extra responsibility on them to deliver on time, or warn you in advance.

3. Estimates from technical people are accepted at face value and in reality they are vastly underestimated 80% of the time.
Get second and third opinions, look at records of old projects and as a minimum double the estimates from the best people and use factors as high as five for others.

4.  There’s gaps between what the supplier delivers and what the internal team have allowed for.
e.g. Inexperienced people might assume that a system can arrive, be plugged in and start testing.
Clear acceptance criteria may not exist and there may be problems agreeing acceptance.
Cut over from an old system to a new one may not be catered for.
This list can grow quickly. If you are not an experienced systems person make sure that there is one in charge of this part of the plan.

5. There may be several suppliers and communication between them may be less than ideal. Often this situation leads to gaps where nobody is responsible and the work grinds to a halt, or even enters dispute , or litigation.

Make sure you hold joint planning meetings and get sign-off to theses joint plans

6. Beware Johari’s window. What you don’t know you know is a terrible waste, so consult and consult again. What you don’t know you don’t know will come back to haunt you, so involve everybody in risk management sessions and try to be ahead of the game, have sufficient slack and keep stakeholders informed of the true position.

7. Over ambitious, or over confident plans create a sense of expectation amongst stakeholders that changes to discontent when the plan slips. Perfectly good projects are often deemed poor projects as a result of this very mistake.

Take the time to estimate risk realistically and maintain realistic slack for the high risk areas of the project.

So in summary:

1. Planning is critical and underpins everything, but it is an ongoing everyday task, not a game of snakes and ladders.

2. Managing projects is primarily about handling and working with uncertainty to remain within agreed, acceptable boundaries, not shooting a silver bullet at a precise point.

3. Planning for well known items is easy, beware what you don’t know, this is where you will get caught out.

4. Risk and opportunity go hand in hand, avoiding risk is no more important than spotting opportunity , but it requires an open mind and a fluid approach to planning.

5. Start with an achievable goal, make sure it is well understood and shared  and keep it in front of mind at all times.

The agile organisation – a risky proposition

When somebody tells you that they want their organisation to be agile, what do you read from that? I’ll bet you feel a bit sheepish because you feel that yours is not, but it should be. I suspect that you remember this becoming a fashionable goal and thinking you would find out at some point what it all means.

If you answered yes, then you just joined a huge club closely affiliated to the new man”, “cosmopolitan woman” and all the others.

Maybe you have already announced to your boss that you are “going agile” and you still haven’t quite got round to working out what precisely it is, but you instinctively know that it is right for you. This is also a very large club growing daily. You won’t be lonely in there either.

The most likely thing is that you came across it via a systems project and all the new converts raved about their new found, almost religious belief in this cure-for-all-corporate-ills. You loved the stories about no decisions, no commitment, no planning, and no documents. ”This is damned interesting, I want to hear more”, you said

What did Bill Gates mean and what did it mean to Microsoft to be agile. Well Bill made the mother of all misjudgements when he said that the internet was of no interest to Microsoft and dismissed its potential. Within one and a half years, Microsoft had changed its mind, won the browser war with Netscape and delivered ASP, the first and still dominant commercial application server for the internet. That was agile, but it had not a thing to do with stand up meetings around whiteboards and walls covered in scribbles.

Horses for courses

Adapting a largely web development methodology and attempting to use it as a corporate philosophy is bonkers. Anybody who tells you otherwise is out of her tree and I’m not given to sweeping statements, so I’ll need to back that up with some arguments, here goes:

  1. Large organisations need process, it is their blood supply

Have you ever experienced an agile development team in the software world? The entire fabric of specialisation, process, controls and method are abandoned completely. Everyone claims to be multi-skilled, they are a team of peers, and they operate outside of the business rules and the corporate structures.
They romanticise it as though they were a hit squad, “licensed to kill”.

All this was put in place for a reason. A highly skilled multi-talented team empowered to JFDI is a great solution to political stalemate and analysis paralysis in specific situations, but would we want the CIA or Mi6 running the country?

Even in a highly mature market, our only corporate goal is to maintain our competitive position or improve it and in many cases this is driven by economies of scale and brand strength. This is why we have oligopoly and cartels everywhere manipulating key domestic markets such as supermarkets, fuel, banking, etc. A typical sluggish, but safe operation is exactly right for the job, low risk, stable and relatively low cost. It can function with the average half to three quarter wit at the wheel and needs no dynamism. It’s all about horses for courses. You can’t take away their crutches and expect them to perform. History shows that it fails miserably.

2. The vital relationship between good strategy, intelligent planning and sane execution. Anybody who has working experience of trading the stock market knows the persona of the Bull and Bear. These fabled characters are, of course, not different individuals, but different phases in each trader’s performance. Adrenaline, or cortisol take over quickly when the action begins and knee jerk reactions produce cowardly hibernating bears, or arrogant testosterone fuelled bulls

I witnessed this just recently when my irrational fear of snakes was suddenly reawakened by almost stepping on one and watching him thankfully slither away. I was physically unable to walk any further and had to resist the urge to run back to the safety of the car. It took a few days before I could walk in the woods again without watching every blade of grass.
I went to Vegas once and discovered that one friend had a deeply rooted gambling issue such that he could only see the chance of winning the next hand and had no inclination of the odds. The higher the likely return the more attracted he was, never weighing it against the likelihood of winning. Both of these situations are unnatural and unrealistic reactions to risk and opportunity and both are potentially destructive.
Let neither fear, nor greed be your master
Human reaction to risk and opportunity both tend to bring out the very ugliest sides of human nature, greed and fear. Neither of these emotions is rational and neither can be trusted for any length of time. They stem from another era when we needed to run very fast into a cave without asking questions, or gorge ourselves before we were driven away from the feast by a more aggressive animal.

It is because of these irrational behaviours that every aspect of business behaviour must be driven by a well formed strategy that includes:

  • A well understood risk attitude
  • A carefully devised approach to managing day to say risk that keeps the bear and bull within us well out of the picture and supports rational management behaviour.
    A risk strategy is not a simple thing to plan out. The fact of the matter is that the more attractive the reward is, the higher the risk will generally be. You have to make your choices

Some examples from the finance and gambling industries
E.G. A bank with its risks spread over the right industries and economies can expect that when one is doing poorly another is doing well and thus balance risk.A bookie can balance his books by taking a precise level of exposure on every horse in a race so that regardless of the outcome he wins a little over the day’s activity. Taking a big picture viewpoint as above, and developing from this a strategy that can be applied at a more granular level allows me to look at the snake philosophically and continue my journey, it allows my gambling friend to view his account on a quarterly basis and aim for a profit without making rash decisions on the spot. It doesn’t stop me from pausing till the snake has disappeared, or taking simple precautions in future.

  • A banker without a strategy would panic when three customers in a row defaulted on their payments. A bookmaker would run for the car park when two favourites in a row won forcing him to pay out. Only reliable insight, a solid strategy and a sound plan allows ordinary individuals to successfully run apparently high risk industries.
    Knee jerk “agile” management is the stuff of the hard luck stories.

3. Responsibility to our shareholders demands responsible decisions, audit trails and experiential learning.
Never before have we been so aware of the responsibility to our way of life that is borne by officers of private businesses everywhere. Every quoted company is taking the savings of pensioners and promising to give them a return annually so they can finish their lives in dignity. Every business has a responsibility to employees and investors of all sorts whose lives depend o their performance. Our world is continually burdened with more audit requirements as more frauds are discovered. We need robust and recorded decision making and we need accountability.
Informal decisions around the water cooler open the door wide for the irresponsible amongst us. I’m not espousing process laden organisations with forms to fill in for everything, but if you leave the cookie jar without a lid, you just know what is going to happen

4. The team is everything
Teams are made of people, not numbers, roles or little boxes connected by lines.
People must have their needs met if they are to perform and if individuals don’t perform the team fails. The things that motivate people to perform are all based around security. Maslov’s hierarchy of needs and later Herzberg’s hygienes and motivators all demonstrate that people need to know where they stand in their group and that their standing must fit their contribution. An agile team in the software world can, if correctly balanced to begin with perform very well, but usually it is utterly dominated by one person and becomes a benign dictatorship. Any attempt to get things right first time are usually dropped in favour of constant revision mode and quickly they realise that constant activity disguises the lack of any meaningful outputs.
The peak of the productivity curve is reached very quickly and after that it is all down hill.
In a non software world, there is little difference other than the fact that sometimes the potential downside can be catastrophic and constant revision is usually less of an option. Single agile teams tackling key business change issues can, if correctly and responsibly set up and under constant enlightened management, both during the forming, norming . . phase and into maturity, produce exceptional results for exceptional managers, but as a broad approach and using a large team of teams, the roll call of spectacular failures speak for themselves.

5. The map is not the territory
Most management philosophies are corrupted shamelessly and misused without any insight into what makes them work. Agile works, but only in it’s own unique environment and only when the core competencies exist and the critical factors have all been properly taken care of.
The risk is seeing only the landmarks, e.g. that you see agile as: describing things in user stories, or having stand up meetings, or small empowered teams, or Just In Time decisions making, or incremental delivery of product. You can adapt any of these that catch your eye and maybe they well deliver what you expect, but that won’t make it agile.
See beyond the ceremony, stare straight through the dogma, but when the time is right, do it right and the rewards can be very encouraging, but don’t close your eyes and try to drive by the SatNav.