Monday, 25 April 2011

Fancy a quickie?

I like to present clients, students and blog readers with simple, memorable ideas. I make this choice, not because I think these people are stupid, but to help those interested in the subject, who lead busy lives.

Typically in problem solving I tend to use a knocked down version of the Buffalo Group creative problem solving method. Instead of 6 phases, I work with 3 + 1. Depending on the circumstances I may or may not make the method explicit. People don't always want or need to see and understand the workings of the internal combustion engine to get from A to B in a car.

When I make the method explicit, I often use the analogy of human sexual relations to clarify the stages. CPS comprises the 3 diamonds: problem exploration, idea generation, implementation + monitoring and evaluation. In the metaphor this translates to: foreplay, intercourse, climax + 'How was it for you?'

(Robert Brasington kites have full and knock down representations of the Buffalo Method. NLP fans may note that they facilitate movement in stuck problems by lifting people's focus out of the Kinaesthetic realm skywards.)

John Cleese gives an interesting lesson in sex education in the film ' The Meaning of Life', (shown here with Portugese sub titles). He states that the purpose of foreplay is to make intercourse easier:

During the practical demonstration he tells the class to 'take foreplay as read', because they covered it in a previous lesson. Unfortunately many of my clients and students wish to do the same, because they find the techniques fascinating and tend to think that creative problem solving happens when ideas are flowing. They haven't covered it in a previous session, so find that idea generation is more difficult or doesn't help resolve the problem.

Human seduction and sexual relations depend on the individual/s concerned. What works for one, may leave another cold. Erogenous zones for one person may be tickle centres for another and create distance between the partners. A problem may seem straightforward on the surface but comprise a number of interconnected parts. If there is a high degree of what Rittel/Mason & Mitroff describe as Wickedness, then work must be done to find a way in to tame it. There may be a number of different areas of a problem that can be tackled but some may lead to fruitful outcomes and others to blind alleys. If there is limited power or scope to influence a particular area then it may be better to move on to parts that are amenable to change.

Sometimes the problem is in the viewer. An issue can be looked at from different angles or reframed so that it becomes more manageable. Dr Abhay Bang reflected on an overwhelming problem and asked himself: 'Do I really need to solve all the problems, all the links in the chain of this cause of death?' I started to think: 'Where is the weakest link I can attack?' The problem owner may also be part of the problem and progress could be made by considering what he/she could do to change him/herself.

A problem well defined is a problem half solved is a useful way of considering the first phase of the method or foreplay.

This notion is sometimes greeted with a groan (much like the schoolboys' response when John Cleese threatens to set an exam.) This assumes that the method will take a long time and require lots of hard work (ie boring.)

It ain't necessarily so.

Sex isn't always the same in terms of quality, quantity or duration. Foreplay can be a long drawn out meal with lots of flirting and interaction or may take the form of a fierce argument between partners. Partners may not always reach a climax and solo sex is also possible. A look, a brief exchange and heightened attraction may do it, as Eban Page explains in his 'cocky and funny' dating system under the name David DeAngelo (aimed at nerdy guys who can't get a date.)

In creative problem solving problem exploration/definition can be done over time in a variety of conversations and contexts. It's possible to snatch little bits of time here and there and I've witnessed successful work done in corridor conversations or water cooler exchanges. Appropriate techniques can be introduced quietly without labelling them as anything special. People are pulled in by the energy and fun of tackling something in a different way, particularly if the problem is entrenched and stuck.

Counter intuitive techniques can be particularly effective in warming up colleagues to the idea of tackling something difficult. Steve Jobs believes people are inherently creative, but need opportunity and tools to unleash this. 'Not tonight, Josephine, I have a headache' can be challenged in various ways. When we open to the possibility that our colleagues might be more creative than we think, we can run creative problem solving processes on the sly and see what emerges. Something as simple as a metaphor can stimulate thinking that is unconstrained by the heavy weight of the real problem - 'What would Homer do?'. A simple reverse brainstorm can also clear a log jam in thinking: 'How can we make this problem catastrophic?'

The method can be run through fast, revisiting one or more phases later for further iterations.

Heinz latched on to the idea of rapid problem solving and snatching opportunities where we can in the famous soup commercial, commenting on male stamina:

'Ready in two minutes'

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Chattanooga Choo Choo diplomacy

'The Chattanooga choo choo probably did more to spread democracy than the CIA'

This view was recently expressed not by a disc jockey or film critic, but the eminent Georgian diplomat and politician, Gela Charkviani.

He was introducing the 1948 film 'Keto and Kote', a romantic, musical comedy about the obstacles faced by a young couple, divided by class and wealth. It had a limited showing in Georgia, but was banned in Russia by Stalin. Historians stated that Stalin disliked the film, but Gela knows that the opposite was true, because his father was present at the first screening. Stalin's advisers decided that the film was too subversive. Love that triumphs over all is much too threatening to a dictatorial regime that destroyed the Georgian aristocracy and intelligentsia and shifted ownership of production from private businessmen to the state.

Gela is familiar with state oppression and censorship. His father was First Secretary of the Communist party and exiled for 6 years by Beria.

Gela ran a tv travel programme for 18 years, which was closely scrutinised by the regime for subversive content. He learnt the rules and introduced aspects of other countries focussing on culture and customs, rather than commenting overtly on democracy. Each programme had to have an obligatory segment on a Russian town to satisfy the authorities. The USA could not be featured, except for a brief shot of New York during New Year celebrations. Today many young Georgians talk about how profoundly they were influenced by this series, as it opened their eyes to the wider world and alternative ways of living.

Gela Charkviani applied Pinchot's 6th commandment:

Work underground as long as you can - publicity triggers the corporate immune mechanism.

As an academic Gela wrote a groundbreaking book on diplomacy and his students included the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Gela became the first foreign minister under Eduard Shevardnadze, when the first president of the newly independent Republic of Georgia was forced into exile. This was the most difficult time for the country, making the transition from communism to democracy and building a modern infrastructure. Shevardnadze is not well regarded at home, in the same way that Gorbachev gets a bad press in Russia compared to his successor, Boris Yeltsin. 'A prophet has no honour in his own country' seems to be true in these cases and radical change agents are not welcomed with open arms.

Some of my students complain about the constraints that they face in bringing about change in bureaucratic organisations with directive leaders and say that some of the course examples look easy in comparison. Gela Charviani and his colleagues never had an easy time. His father did much for the Georgian economy and culture and to unite the regions of the country. He was compassionate and defied Beria in avoiding unnecessary bloodshed by reflecting before punishing anyone for alleged misdemeanours, but paid for it with exile and demotion.

Each person worked in their own sphere, but all of them made a contribution to the eventual shift to independence and democracy. The country now has a stronger banking system and clear government budgets.

There are still threats to the borders and Russia is clearly not happy to have lost control of its neighbour.

Gela shows how to play the long game. He also pays attention to the soft aspects of climate and culture in changing minds. 'You trap more flies with honey than vinegar' is another way to characterise this indirect approach to change.

He also reminds us of the Stockdale Paradox, where blind optimism may kill, but faith and awareness of brutal reality may get us through to the change we desire. One thing is certain, it takes time and has little connection with neat and tidy planned change.


How did the Chattanooga Choo Choo make such a difference to Georgia specifically?

Stalin allowed jazz films into the country, such as 'Sun Valley Serenade' (which features the song). The government raised a lot of money by showing these films but underestimated the power of human psychology.

Marxism focuses on socio-economic analysis and a rational view of human motivation. It ignores the unconscious mind and irrational motivation, such as love. Hunger and poverty may drive people to desperate measures but aren't the only catalyst for revolutionary change.

After the release of 'Sun Valley Serenade' young people went around singing the song, subliminally exposed to a different culture and mindsets slowly changed. Voice of America broadcasts also included a jazz programme which contributed to the effect, slowly chipping away at the invulnerability of the state and official dogma.

As my colleague, Peter Cook, demonstrated an audience can recall the words to 'Bohemian Rhapsody' which is more than 35 years old, but are unable to recite the company Mission Statement (usually much shorter).

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Hurry only 3 more available

B822 is a module of the Open University Business School MBA. It can also be taken as a standalone course.

The next course starts in May and there may be a few places left.

The last 2 begin in November 2011 and then May 2012.

An Economist blog recently commented on the strengths of the Open University in comparison with the latest idea for a privately funded university. The OU is geared up to deliver programmes via a range of accessible media across the globe.

Here's one of my colleagues, Peter Cook, talking about Mission Statements, getting round organisational rules and constraints and how creativity works in the real world.

Here's another colleague, John Gaynard, with his own take on creativity, innovation and change.

Will this man still be in power by the end of the course?

All change.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

'Me-too' products

Wine developed in different ways around the world. France was proud of terroir and the notion that the region and local conditions affected the character of the wine. The New World focussed on grape varieties and interesting blends.

Globalisation led to shifts in production. Australians parachuted in to France to help modernise the wine industry. Countries creatively swiped ideas from others on how to produce better wines. Technology drove many changes. The increasing power of supermarkets in the UK led to buyers advising producers on blends that would suit UK tastes, and with a large customer base, their arguments were persuasive.

Some French wine experts moved to London, claiming that British people were more adventurous in their tastes in wine than the French.

One of these was Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron. She argues that globalisation has led to a homogenised market, which has become saturated, so that wine sales are falling. She is particularly critical of the focus on technology and additives to fix poor wines, rather than attention paid to the quality of vines and grapes. Isabelle is an advocate of natural wines:

I met Isabelle at a screening of a documentary on Georgian kvevri wines, which are made in large earthenware jars sunk in the ground.

The character of these wines is very different from conventional bottles. We drank golden wine, which was white wine fermented on the skins. Another producer offered glasses of a stunning deep red wine poured from a decanter. This tasted of fresh blackberries or elderberries. The champion of this particular red wine told me it was being added to a blend to suit European tastes before he rescued it for sale as a single wine.

Georgians believe they were the first in the world to make wine and maintain traditions going back a thousand years in producing unadulterated, natural wines. Some Georgians are ashamed of Isabelle's tv programme, because it shows old delapidated farm houses and peasants with few teeth. They would prefer to focus on the modern side of the country, thinking that this would help export more wine and attract tourists. Sadly this would lead to more generic wine entering the market chasing prices and profit margins to the bottom.

A source of innovation in Europe is dissatisfaction with the status quo in food and drink. In 1986 Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food movement in Italy to promote traditional methods of growing and producing food suitable to the local environment and regional tastes.

Georgian kvevri wine fits easily into this movement, valuing flavour and naturalness over efficient, high tech production, which leads to globally identical food and drink. Georgia still has a large number of grape varieties unknown anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately kvevri makers are growing old and young people are not interested in learning the skill of crafting these large clay pots.

Peters and Waterman would tell Georgians to stick to the knitting and not mess about trying to copy wine styles and production methods from other parts of the world.

An NLP precept often quoted is 'If something isn't working, do something different.' This leaves out the other half of the quote (from Milton Erickson) 'If something is working, do more of it.'

Isabelle is determined not to allow traditional kvevri wines to disappear in Georgia just when Westerners are learning to love them.

Here is the trailer for her programme:


In July 2011 there was a 3 day symposium in Tbilisi on kvevri wine making.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Corporate oxymoron

'Corporate social responsibility? Why is that part of this course? You seem to have slipped it in as an after thought.' Is what many of my students comment about the MBA module I teach.

Few of them believe that private sector companies show much interest in anything beyond profits and growth.

I beg to differ.

One of my students told me about Bovis Lend Lease Community Days. Outsiders may see this as a warm and fluffy idea for junior staff to bunk off work for a day to mess about with local community groups doing 'good works.'

The construction industry has a macho reputation and property developers aren't seen as kindly uncles of the community. However an increasing number of projects involve partnership working, where the needs of users and major stakeholders have to be considered and included. Projects may involve a lot of work to adapt plans to suit patterns of use. Bovis Lend Lease are ahead of the game in making community consultation and cooperation part of company practice.

The company has a code of conduct and core values which read well. I tend to be sceptical about the theory until I see it in action.

This video shows the beginning of a site induction with a basic safety message:

I found an interesting obituary of Sir Frank Lampl. I'd never heard of him, but he got a job with Bovis in the early 1970s and worked his way to the top. He oversaw the sale of the company to Australia's Lend Lease and became life president of the united company: Bovis Lend Lease.

In Czechoslovakia he was only allowed to work as a construction labourer, but turned this to good advantage:

'If you come through the ranks..... you have a much better feel for what's happening on the site.'

I've met many people who used to work in construction, but couldn't bear the strain of recession, redundancy and the struggle to find work. I was astonished to read his goal for the company, particular Bovis International:

"I wanted to build up a business that didn't suffer so much from the economic cycles." He introduced US construction management skills allowing rapid completion of complex projects.

How macho was Frank Lampl? He wanted to be remembered 'for fairness and caring.' 'Most success depends on colleagues, on the team. People at the top can have large egos, but you must never say 'I': it's always 'we''. Colleagues described him as a compassionate man and an exceptional leader, but always hard nosed.

Frank seems an excellent example of a Level 5 leader, with the ability to drive things forward without crushing colleagues or blaming others for his mistakes. A humble man, who was also a survivor of 2 concentration camps and persecution under the Czech communist regime.

How did this warm and fluffy company do in the current economic downturn?

They delivered an operating profit after tax for the half year of 220.2 million Australian dollars, which represents a 17.2% increase on the corresponding period for the prior year. The UK part of the business experienced a fall in profits because of a significant slowdown in its EMEA markets (Europe, Middle East & Africa.)

The 'So what?' test

When I work with teams and teach traditional personality inventories I challenge them to go beyond labelling each other.

How can knowledge of personality types help you communicate more effectively with colleagues, bosses and customers?

Myers Briggs Type Indicator distinguishes between different ways of making decisions: Thinking - based on facts and logic versus Feeling - based on values.

Here are 2 public information videos about wearing seat belts. The first one alerts motorists and passengers to the risks of not wearing rear seat belts. In this case, the passenger may 'kill' the driver.

A more recent commercial encourages male drivers to think about their families and a future life together as a reason to 'belt up' or embrace life.

Both films may shock the viewer, but the first is informative and the second one emphasises values.

LAB profiling also points out that the first film motivates people to move away from the negative (ie death), whereas the second encourages people to go toward the positive (ie life with loved ones). Not all of us are motivated by the same thing and slanting adverts to focus on catastrophe doesn't necessarily engage those who are more focussed on goals than risks.

In MBTI this roughly correlates to the Extraverion/Introversion scale, but NLP expresses preferences in clearer terms.

Swedish weather

Goran Ekvall pioneered work on organisational climate and creativity. He carried out surveys in Swedish companies such as Volvo, using 10 dimensions:

Challenge: from enjoyable and energetic to alientated and indifferent

Freedom: from independent iniatives - to passive, rule bound

Dynamism: from excitedly busy - to boringly slow

Trust/openness: from trusting and failure tolerant - to suspicious and failure punished

Idea time: from off-task play - to little off-task play

Playfulness: from happy and humorous - to dull and serious

Conflicts: from debate with insight - to open warfare

Support: from people listen - to critical, negative comments

Debates: from contentious ideas voice - to little questioning

Risk taking: from acting on new ideas - to detail and committee bound

Ekvall argued that one size does not fit all and that the climate varied according to the task.

Ekvall and Jouko Arvonen challenged conventional thinking on leadership styles, which distinguished between concern for task and concern for people. They proposed a third style based on change orientation.

Change-centred leadership is defined in terms of vision, creativity, action for implementation and risk-taking. Arvonen suggests that the new style has emerged as a result of new work challenges.

Arvonen studied 'post-bureaucratic organisations' and emphasised the need for action. Much depends on whether the soft dimensions of Ekvall's model are incorporated by a change-centred leader. Unsupportive, critical and blaming leaders may still be creative, visionary and active risk takers, but the climate could still bring threatening thunder clouds to the team.

Reflecting on inventories

I'm not a big fan of using standard psychometric tests in recruitment and selection.

One way I like to use personality inventories is in coaching, as a way to help show someone how well they have developed.

For example, managers often come to me because they are overwhelmed with stress and struggle to keep going in the job. After we've worked together for a while and focussed on ways of reducing the pressure, shifting mindsets, delegating and managing self and others better, it's useful to sit back and reflect.

What aspects of their personality may have contributed to the problem?

Using NEO five factor inventory, we can focus on a few dimensions that may have contributed to stress in the past, but which, with lower scores, are more manageable.

High Conscientiousness, where a manager may work to such high standards that they feel responsible for everything, coupled with High Agreeableness, where a manager may be reluctant to discipline staff and keen to avoid conflict at all costs, can increase pressure on the individual. When the manager has High Sensitivity and worries about things going wrong or perceived criticism from superiors or subordinates, it may take very little for this person to crack under the strain.

By introducing these concepts when things are improving, the manager may feel much less defensive about the dimensions and relevant descriptions, but recognise the elements that have caused trouble. These can then be used as a personal tracking system to help maintain pressure at a safe and healthy level.

Cooperation not guns

Attack invites defence. Opposing sides become caught in vicious circles of attack and retribution.

How we can break the cyle?

Arna Mer defied Israeli convention by marrying a communist, Christian, Arab Palestinian, Saliva Khamis. She could no longer work as a teacher, so she trained as a therapist and founded a centre in the Jenin refugee camp. This contained a theatre, which was destroyed during the second intifada. Her son the Israeli actor and film maker, Juliano Mer-Khamis, recreated the Freedom Theatre and worked with local children there until last week, when he was shot dead by an anonymous gunman:

The theatre worked therapeutically with young people from ages 5 to 21. Part of the aim was to shift away from victim consciousness and foster confidence and broader thinking. Jule challenged all authority including patriarchy and was an advocate for feminism in his work:

Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to bring together Arab and Israeli young people to play classical music.

When young people are brought up in a society that may promote the idea that people of the other side are less than human and share no common characteristics, striving for a common goal helps to break down these preconceptions and increase understanding. At the very least, bringing young people together, who would normally never meet, is a start.

10th anniversary interview:

Both projects encourage young people to reflect on experience and make conscious choices in future.


The murderer of Juliano Mer Khamis has not been found. The Freedom Theatre in Jenin has been attacked by Israeli security forces.

Here is an Open letter to the Israeli Security Apparatus:

...'After the attack on The Freedom Theatre's office and multimedia centre, during which you arrested our head technician Adnan Naghnaghiye and Bilal Saadi, the chairperson of The Freedom Theatre Board in Jenin; and after you have for two weeks refused Adnan and Bilaal access to a lawyer, treated them inhumanely and denied them their basic human rights, and after the arrest of our acting student Rami Hwayel, we hereby state:

We encourage all efforts to find whoever is responsible for the brutal murder of Juliano Mer Khamis and we are deeply concerned over the fact that the murderer has not yet been found. Nevertheless we reject the inhumane methods that you apply in investigating the murder. The Freedom Theatre has been seriously damaged by your actions which have further implanted fear and trauma not only among our students and employees but also into the very society we aim to empower.

By acting the way that you act you have once again proved to the residents of Jenin refugee camp as well as to the outside world that the only methods you know are the ones involving violence, terror and fear. We in The Freedom Theatre have nothing to conceal redarding the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis......'

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The customer journey

People who buy products or use services are a pesky lot and increasingly unpredictable.

Organisations may map the customer journey for a variety of purposes. Sometimes the aim is to reduce it to a series of steps in marketing to which specific monetary value can be assigned.

Another way of considering the progression of the customer through these contact points is to review how well the shop window reflects the culture and public statements of the organisation. Both Chris Argyris and Donald Schon have written about congruence and gaps between theory espoused and theory in use. Yesterday I sat in a waiting room reading a poster that said: 'Our aim is perfection, excellence is tolerated'. There were damp patches on the ceiling, mistakes had been made in my customer record, which no one was willing to correct and I waited an hour and a half to be seen. Who defines perfection and excellence?

Organisations may hire mystery shoppers or be visited by anonymous critics or inspectors, depending on their sector. The aim is to check that front line staff are maintaining standards of customer service. Little thought seems to be given to another category of potential customer, the job candidate.

I've worked with managers who believe they must use psychometric inventories in their selection process because other organisations do so. Some use assessment centres with a battery of tests to present a professional image. As a candidate I've rarely seen tests applied as specified in the manual. Many managers seem to have no understanding of the instrument and refer to the company pschologist or external consultant who processed the results. More often the results of tests are set aside or mislaid, giving a bad impression of the organisation and how managers value the time and effort of job candidates.

I've known high calibre HR staff who are adept at using psychometric tests and following them up with an interview to review the results and amend any errors. In my experience these are the exception.

When clients ask for help with their recruitment and selection process I ask them to identify the purpose of tests. Are there specific aspects of the job that a particular inventory might help them to select against?

I tend to recommend simpler tests than many on the market, so that managers understand and can apply them with confidence. Alternatively I suggest that they hire me to screen candidates based on specific aspects of job fit. In the latter case I use LAB Profiling, because candidates learn as much about themselves and the type of job that would suit them as the organisation learns about them. The interview avoids jargon and draws on real work examples.

For example, I've helped small business owners avoid hiring office managers who don't enjoy following standard procedures and tend to reduce efficiency and profitability by constantly tinkering with core processes.

In the current economic climate managers who advertise job vacancies may be overwhelmed with the number of applications. Tests or qualifications may be used as a way to reduce the number of candidates. Unfortunately neither seem to ensure the selection of ideal people unless work has been done to define the gap that an individual may fill in a team.