Teamwork Suffering in Downturn

I have just read a very disturbing, yet unsurprising article reporting that 12% of workers admit to having become more insular during the recession. 

At the very time when companies need greater interaction and greater interdependency (teamwork), individuals are seeking to protect their own workloads and projects and around some 27% admit to working longer hours.

The report quotes Mike Bourne, professor of business performance at Cranfield University School of Management as saying,

“Team collaboration and knowledge sharing is essential to help businesses chart a way through the current climate. However, while some employees are understandably worried about job security, firms with business processes to automate teamwork are able to reconcile both workforce productivity and personal performance.”

See report here.

I’m not sure whether it is part of British DNA or culture, but we seem to really struggle with the concept of working together to achieve a common goal.  Perhaps we’ve had experiences where we’ve been betrayed by those whom we have trusted, or had others leapfrog over us as they take our ideas and use them for personal gain and promotion. 

Unfortunately, these sad characters will always be with us. 

But teamwork is exactly the forum that will help to expose these individuals and it provides the team with a level of security impossible to achieve on an individual level.  Who in their right mind (if they are that way inclined) will take on a group of people, a group which is likely to include members of the management team?

But teamwork isn’t really about sinking these rogue battleships; it’s about achieving an objective more quickly, efficiently and completely than is possible when we work alone.

The proof is in the marketplace.  Look at the most successful companies and see how many of these use teams and creative approaches to problem solving and company direction.  A recent survey suggested that in business cultures which engender trust and co-operation, productivity is around 269% greater than where it is absent.

I guess it’s up to us whether we choose to believe the statistics and give it a go … or continue as we are.  Only time, and possibly company solvency will tell.

Change: Necessary Evil or Exciting Challenge


It’s a relatively small word, but one that can strike fear into the hardest heart. 

For the last decade or so, we have been constantly told that change will continue to happen, it will continue to happen more often and that the need for change will continue.  We live in times where it would seem that nothing remains constant.

And when we hear about the ‘need for change’ we often become fearful, angry, pessimistic, cynical or just disbelieving!

Yet if we think about our lives, from the time of childhood we have naturally adapted to change.  We grew up, moved house, we changed schools, we made new friends, we lost others.  None of these experiences was particularly easy, but we got through them and we learned in the process. We adapted.  We changed. We fitted in.  Perhaps others fitted in around us.

What were the common features?  Well let’s think about changing school.  I think … 

  • We needed to plan.  A new school meant perhaps new subjects, new books, new challenges.  With the help of teachers we planned for our new venture.  And where we didn’t or couldn’t, it was all the more difficult to make a good start.
  • We understood the message.  We knew we were going to a new school and we knew when.  It wasn’t a surprise when it happened.  We may not have liked the idea, but we settled in much more quickly when we bought into it and accepted the change.
  • We needed to adapt to survive.  We moved to a new school and needed to learn the building plan, the teachers, the new timetable, in order to operate effectively within that environment.  If we moved to a school where we were met by friendly faces who helped us settle in and showed us around, we settled in more easily.  If we were left to fend for ourselves, it was much more difficult and a much less pleasurable or easy experience.
  • We needed to change some behaviours.  Some things that were acceptable in our previous school or at our previous age level needed to be modified or adapted to the new environment or culture.  Some things different.  We had to know the difference and act accordingly.
  • We formed new relationships (and perhaps lost some).  In our new environment we met new people, perhaps whom we had never seen before, and built new relationships.  Some didn’t get off to a good start.  Others worked immediately, perhaps because we and our new friend ‘clicked’ in some way that made the process easier.  Some relationships dropped away, for a variety of reasons, but our social and working structure and support changed.
  • We started working according to the new rules.  We adapted to the rules and regulations, we worked to the new timetables and in accordance with the wishes of our new teachers and mentors.  And as we settled in, we also contributed to the life of the new school making our own little imprint in sports, science, arts, mathematics … whatever.  We converted the plan into something personal and made it happen, not only for ourselves but also for others.  If we didn’t, we became familiar with detention, or exclusion, or pain!
  • Our working style became part of us.  As we settled in to the new way of doing things, what we practised became habit, and a pattern for our daily, weekly, monthly routine … until the next change!

The fact is that most of the time we survived.  Unfortunately, as we grow older and often have more control over our life, we fall into patterns of doing things which last for longer periods of time.  Therefore, change becomes more difficult.

We know that for change to be effective, it must be well-planned and executed, but we also know that if we look back into our history we have faced it and come through it … in one piece.

Sometimes the biggest barrier to change is in our minds, through fear of the unknown and a fear that we may not be able to handle it.  But we have in the past.  And that should be an encouraging start.  We may not like the thought of change, but it is here to stay.  So the better we handle it, the better we are equipped to face and conquer the next challenge … and the next change.

The Brain: Our Creative Powerhouse

Our brain is an amazing organ.

Located in our skull, at the top of our body, this relatively small structure is our own central processing unit (CPU).  Much more intricate and infinitely more powerful than any computer, our brain works silently 24 hours-a-day, 365/366 days-a-year, from before we are born until we die, controlling organ function, thought, emotions, movement, hormone levels … the list goes on.

To help put its complexity into context, there are estimated to be more connections/junctions in our brain than there are stars in the universe; that is more than 100 billion!

But even with our extensive knowledge and intense research efforts, many areas of the brain remain a mystery.  From what we do know and without getting into too much detail, our brain is divided into different anatomical areas with different structures and functions.  A significant part is dedicated to the processing of information fed in by nerves connected to our senses (e.g., touch, sight, smell & hearing), through the detection of changes in levels of hormones and other ‘body chemicals’.  Interaction of the different areas provides our thoughts, deductions, analyses, feeling and emotions.

And different areas provide specific types of thoughts and responses: emotional; rational; sexual.

It follows that what we feed into our brain influences what we get out.  Benefits of a healthy diet, exercise regimens and work/rest balance have all been demonstrated to one degree or another.  The way in which we ‘train’ our brain influences how much information we retain, how we process the information we receive and how we arrive at the conclusions we draw.  Our life experiences also greatly influence how we process information.  All of these factors add up to a very complex series of interactions and influences.

One thing we know is that the brain responds well and adapts, even changes when we repeat actions (we call this practice).  New skills are learnt, information retained and brain processes modified.  Think of learning a new skill … very rarely do we start off an expert.  Athletes train their bodies and brains for the physical and mental battles on the track and field.  Musicians train their fingers, hands, feet and minds as they master tunes and rhythms, read music and improve dexterity.  Actors learn their parts through the repetition of words and actions.

And in our school and colleges, we repeatedly stimulate our logical, deductive faculties through repetition and the exercising of our ‘left brain’.

But if we wish to be creative it is important that we understand the need to exercise our whole brain.  The right side is important in engaging our emotions, non-logical or deductive thinking and artistic skills.  When we hook this up with our logical thinking, we arrive at creativity.

Creativity is not a gift of the few it is a talent we ALL possess.  Neither is creativity something that just happens.  Just like any other skill, we need to work at it, exercising the different faculties of our mind and intelligence, honing the skills that make creativity part of our life.

Whatever area of life we find ourselves in, creativity has a place and application.  In one of my earlier articles, 5 Simple Steps to Creative Thinking and Idea Generation, I listed some time-proven steps which help us to train our brains to think creatively and come up with new ideas.  These steps were identified by a master of the advertising industry from the 1940’s, but they are equally applicable today across a broad range of disciplines.

Our brain IS an amazing organ and the potential IS almost infinite.  How we tap into that potential often lies with the way in which engage our faculties, however good or bad we think they are.  When we engage these effectively, we are repeatedly amazed by our own creative potential.

So let’s learn how to use our whole brain, our whole intelligence, rather than just our intellect, and benefit ourselves and others from the creativity that emerges.

Innovation: A Team Sport

Innovation and creativity are not entities and they do not happen spontaneously.

They are the fruits of people, people interacting and working together, complete with all of the friction and personality clashes.  Innovation is analogous to a musical writing partnership or team sports.  If all roles are performing well, we get a positive force for innovation.  And just with sports teams, it is not essential to have total excellence in every area.  Some of the most effective and innovative teams have true excellence in one or two areas combined with strength in many others.  There may be stars in our team, but the team is the powerhouse.

Perspiration, dedication and hard work are also at the centre of creativity and innovation, honing skills practiced and developed over long periods of time, until they really work.  Here are Some basic principles for success:

  1. Stretch for Strength:  Flexibility is more important than strength, size or power.  Many ‘giants’ of the business world have disappeared as smaller, more nimble companies stole the market through exercising their flexibility and operating according to new business models.
  2. Go for distance:  Innovation is less about a programme and more about a way of life; a culture.  It is a culture that should be at the centre of every part of an organisation and one which continues to evolve and develop with time, and over time.  It is about longevity rather than fad.
  3. Never give in:  Wherever there is innovation there are obstacles and these must be overcome.  Personalities within our teams will be able to see ways around whatever obstacle is in the way or objection raised.  At these times close collaboration and problem sharing are essental for going the distance.
  4. Fight the mental battles:  One of the biggest obstacles or hurdle to our progress looms in the battle of the mind; our psyche.  To quote Tom Kelley, ‘Innovators have the uncommon sense to pursue ideas long after others give up.’
  5. Celebrate the coach:  Behind every great sports team there is a geat coach.  Behind every great project team there is a great coach.  They may not be in the limelight, but they labour tirelessly in the background making sure everything and everyone stays together.  The right coach brings out the best and we notice the difference

The most successful teams comprise a rich mix of different types of people with different personalities or personas, different talents and abilities, different temperaments.  The correct mix will produce sufficient innovative friction to push forward the team and push forward the innovative process.

When innovation is experienced, it is a mighty force to inspire further innovation.  Perhaps the most important step is to make a start, no matter how small, get the innovation engine turning over, see the benefits and build on them.  And these benefits will be pretty obvious when they occur, hopefully enough to overcome politics and convert even the most cynical as they see a turn-around in their group, department, business unit or  company.

And innovation doesn’t just turn companies around, it becomes a way of life.

My Zimbio
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5 Simple Steps to Creative Thinking and Idea Generation

Every so often I read a really practical book.  Today’s feast was written back in the 1940’s by James Webb Young, an advertising guru.  The great thing about a great book is that it is timeless.  Much has changed in the world since Mr Young first wrote this short work, but the human mind still works in the same way and the need for creative ideas is ever more important.

Thankfully, this time-proven formula still works with great effect … as long as we don’t do our favourite ‘cutting the corners’!

The following process has a track record of success for creating new ideas across a wide sphere of disciplines, from poetry to painting, engineering to science, from advertising to legal.

The aim is to make new connections between existing events or subjects, completing a new picture, analogous to making a jigsaw for the first time.

It is essential to understand that this is a sequence and not just a list of tasks.  Therefore, each step should be completed in the sequence listed.  Each individual step is the foundation for success at the next stage.

1. Collect Raw Materials
This step is often skipped or only partly completed but is a key to the overall success of the process.  The quality of ideas generated depends on the quality of the preparation and assimilation of the raw materials.  Raw materials can include paper and magazine cuttings, photographs, advertisements, original observations. 

Two types of raw materials should be collected:

  • Specific –  Those relating directly to the area of interest, customer group, proposed product etc.
  • General – Those relating to the broad subject of life events and current affairs.  The more widely we spread our net for general materials, the greater our chance of generating creative ideas.  This is an ongoing process on which we can build each day.

It is a good idea to assemble these into some kind of order or pattern.  Scrapbooks are a great way to collect general materials.  Specific materials can be catalogued in some way to make retrieval easier.

Do not short-cut step 1.

2. Digest the Materials
This step involves taking each piece of information and studying it from as many angles and in as many different ways as you can.  Really try to ‘get inside’ what it is about, what it is saying, how it looks etc.  Continue this process with each piece of specific and general information, looking at the facts and trying to bring them together to see how they fit.  A ‘fit’ may be found for some pieces of information without too looking too deeply.  As bits of ideas come to mind, write these down, no matter how wild or part-formed they are.  This process will help cement them in the mind and is a precursor to generation of complete ideas.

It is hard work and at some stage the mind will become tired, but keep going at this stage as you will develop a second burst of mental energy.  Only when everything becomes a complete jumble with no clear solution anywhere should you stop this process.

3. Drop the Subject
A common trait in the creative process and idea generation is that these ideas come to us when we are least expecting them to, and often when we are doing something that is totally unrelated to the area in which we have been seeking to generate ideas.

So, this third step is quite simple; get as far away as possible from the thinking process on our chosen area.  Do something different, preferably something where you can relax and something that you really enjoy.  Typically, this will be a topic or activity in which you feel most creative, such as, listening to music, reading poetry, playing a sport.

This allows our subconscious to mull over the information we have input in steps one and two.

4. The Idea from Nowhere
At some stage an idea will ‘appear as from nowhere’ and usually during a pretty mundane activity such as eating breakfast, having a bath or shave, going for a walk.  This is the point at which you must write it down to capture it (having a pencil and notebook in the pocket at all times is a very useful exercise) and then …

5. Test the Idea
Once ideas have been generated it may be apparent that they are not the complete picture or not as great as first thought.  However, the best way to test these is to expose them to a trusted judicious few.  This may seem a bit of a threat.  After all, we may not feel like sharing ideas with others (hence the word ‘trusted’) and we may be afraid of them being shot down in flames (hence the word ‘trusted’).

What is most interesting is that a good seed of an idea will generate more flesh from those who encounter it.  So, our idea will benefit from the wisdom and experience of others and grow as they add their ideas to it.  The idea expands into opportunities and possibilities that we may have overlooked.

What we end up with is a creative solution, shaped and developed from an idea into a practical solution.

You can download your own free copy of these 5 steps, in PDF format, using the following link … 5 Steps to Creating Ideas, either by clicking on the link which will open the document in Adobe Acrobat Reader (or whatever PDF software you have on your computer) and then saving the file to your computer, or by right clicking on the link and using the ‘Save Target As‘ (Internet Explorer) or equivalent for other browsers (such as Firefox).

Until next time …

My Zimbio
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Brainstorming: Dead or Alive?

Brainstorming seems to have been transient in many organisations, though in some cases the title has been changed but the process is essentially the same.

Probably ten years ago, Brainstorming was at its zenith, a hip tool that seemed to impact any and every scenario in businesses; management meetings, project teams, ideas committees.  All embraced it actively … and then as quickly as it arrived on the scene, it departed from many settings …  which is very sad.

For many, a brainstorm was little more than an excuse for firing out ideas, discussing them and then forgetting them.  The sessions were ill-structured, poorly manged and produced little lasting fruit.  And yet, over a decade later, innovation experts still sing the praises of this tool.

So, for those who have perhaps missed out on the power and value of brainstorming, here is a short(ish) summary of the method and its benefits.

Brainstorming is a very important technique, not only because it generates ideas but because it lays the foundations for a creative and innovative culture.  Bob Sutton, a Stanford University professor suggests that Brainstorming is especially beneficial for a number of reasons:

  • Organisational Memory – Many valuable and experienced members of our organisations are too busy to be involved on project teams.  BUT they can spare an hour for a brainstorming session. The brainstorm thus allows us access to organisational expertise and knowledge that would otherwise be inaccessible.  During the session, possible solutions from past, present or future experiences may be explored, thereby drawing on the organisation’s memory and intelligence.
  • Reinforcing an attitude of wisdom – The attitude of wisdom is the balance between confidence in what we know and a willingness to listen to ideas that challenge us and our worldview.  Brainstorming matches our wits and creativity with those of others, which can be humbling, but also makes us wiser.
  • Increases visibility of team members – When run properly, the free-spirited atmosphere of brainstorming sessions allows people who may not normally be ‘visible’ to shine and to make their contribution, and their mark.  They are able to gain attention and status which may have otherwise passed them by.

However, a brainstorming session can only be as effective as those contributing, and in a large part, to those responsible for leading the group.  Here are some simple rules for making the sessions effective:

  • Target focus – Start with a question that really states the problem in an open-ended but not too braod manner.  An example of this type of question would be, “How can we gain deeper insights into our first-time customers?”
  • Stick to the rules – Go for maximum quantity rather than quality, encourage wild ideas, be visual, defer judgement until later, allow only one contribution at a time.  Make sure everyone knows these rules and make them visible to all (e.g., printed in large letters on posters, white boards etc which are positioned in clear view around the room); it is important.  By adhering to these rules we are able to keep the meeting and ideas focussed and empower members of the team to contribute.
  • Number all ideas – By keeping a tally of how many ideas we have generated we are able to motivate and spur on the team to even more.  If we are aiming for 100 ideas (a good result for one hour’s work) and we have reached 94, it is unlikely that any team will settle for less than the target.
  • Add and switch –  At some stage during the process ideas will dry up or slow down.  Rather than dwelling on this, it is a good idea to return to some of the earlier ideas and build on them for a while.  A good question to ask here is something like, “How might we apply these?”  Once we have answered a few of these, we can return to adding to the list, where it is quite common for ideas to freely flow again.
  • Use space – Use the whole room; all vertical and horizontal spaces.  Use Post-Its and low-tech mediums that everyone can share and use.  Use a room that allows this to happen (rather than one which says, “Do not stick tape on the paintwork“).
  • Pre-warm the brain – Set attendees a bit of ‘homework’ by asking them to think about the problem the night before and then sleep on it.  A pre-warmed brain is a good tool for increasing output during the brainstorming session.
  • Include the physical – Verbal ideas are good, but some projects lend themselves to visual and physical ideas, such as the creation of prototypes, construction of crude models, drawing diagrams or pictures etc.  Make a good supply of ‘creative staples’ (plastic bottles, boxes, paper, tape, glue etc) available and visible.

So there we have it.  A few hints and ideas to breathe new life into our next brainstorming session.

I have to acknowledge and thank Tom Kelley for his book, The Ten Faces of Innovation [Profile Books, ISBN 978-1-86197-806-6] for help on this subject.

Until next time, happy storming of the brain!


My Zimbio
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Innovation: Courage to Create Success

Sometimes the first ingredient we need for innovation is courage; courage to go with our convictions, even in the face of opposition.

3M is a global company with a reputation for creativity and innovation, but anyone who has worked in almost any ‘creative and innovative organisation’ will tell you that reputation and actual practice are often poles apart.  Sure, they like to take the credit for their public successes but what they don’t publicise so freely is just how much perseverance, tenacity and sheer dogged single-mindedness the individual champions of the case have to be in order to make their individual success a company success.

I was reminded recently of the account of Richard Drew, an iconic figure within 3M culture and the person responsible for not one, but two truly innovative products that put 3M well and truly on the map, both as an organisation and later as an innovative company.

Drew joined 3M with a less than glowing background of being a college dropout who played banjo in dance bands at night whilst studying engineering through a correspondence course.  He had an entry level job as a lab technician.  One of Drew’s tasks was to take batches of 3M’s Wetodry sandpaper to a nearby St Paul automotive body shop.  At the time (1921) two tone colours were all the rage for cars, and on one of Drew’s visits a painter was cursing and swearing because he had just ruined a paint job.  There was at that time no way of ensuring a good line between the colours except through the use of glues and paper etc.

Drew saw the problem and decided to come up with a solution.

Now it would be great to say that he was supported by the company for his efforts, but he wasn’t.  3M was a sandpaper manufacturer not a tape manufacturer so Drew had to ‘go underground’ to do his work, experimenting with all sorts of oils and resins to produce a superior adhesive.  He was told to stop on at least one occasion and agreed until the attraction of his own little project became too great and he started again.  When he had come up with a good prototype, he needed to manufacture the finished article for which he needed a specific piece of machinery.  He was refused.  So he used his initiative and used a series of $99 sign-offs (he was allowed to authorise payments up to $100) which slipped ‘under the company radar’ to buy the machine.

In 1925, Richard Drew successfully produced the world’s first masking tape with a pressure sensitive adhesive backing … and the rest, as they say, is history.  Well it would be if Drew hadn’t come up a few years later with another invention of the first see through adhesive packaging tape, Scotch Tape, again after  persevering against the odds.

Of course today, the name of Richard Drew is synonymous with the innovative spirit of the company, but at the time he was making it big for the company through his determination and conviction to succeed, it was a battle; a battle which involved stepping around the rules, lying low, persevering against the odds.

Innovation is often a rough path which is only seen and appreciated by the end-results of products or processes, not during the actual process of arriving (except by those who are driving it).

So the next time we are looking for innovation in our business, we need to remember that it is often a long and winding road, and a road that will require a lot of sweat and toil along the way, not only with the project at hand but with all the devil’s advocates and ‘jobworths’ who tell us that it won’t work.  This is why we need to lok at adopting a creative and innovative culture which understands the processes, pitfalls and obstacles and which helps, not hinders the process which is the lifeblood of company survival and expansion.

My Zimbio

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Creativity: The Other Global Crisis

Perhaps one of the most eloquent and engaging speakers I have heard is Sir Ken Robinson. he has this style which instantly puts one at ease whilst totally drawing us in to what he has to say. If you want an example, pour yourself a coffee and Watch Ken Robinson Talk to see him in action (opens in a new window … use the ‘Close Window’ button after viewing).

In one of his more recent appearances he continued to present some uncomfortable facts which will impact us all unless things change. Here is a sample of out-takes from his talk. Full article here (opens in a new window).

  • The world is facing a crisis of human resources … “I believe that fundamentally we have both underestimated and continue to misuse – if not actually abuse – many of our most important talents; our talents, our children’s talents, and the talents of the people who work with us. And unless we fix [this crisis], I feel we’re not going to make much progress fixing the other one.”
  • Both crises are the result of our “industrial mindset,” which is incompatible with modern society and modern business. Both manifest themselves in terms of imbalances. In the natural world it is the imbalance of gases in our atmosphere, although human activity is also disrupting many other ecosystems. In society we have legions of people dislocated from their own talents, legions of people suffering from all kinds of anxiety, legions of people in dysfunctional communities. And there is an enormous cost of handling this.
  • In California (Robinson’s new home town) spends $3.5bn a year on the state university system; it spends $9.9bn on the state prison system. Similar figures exist for other Western countries, as well as other US states. The UK spends millions of pounds a year on remedial education, to try to get kids through a system which many of them are bucking against. And we spend millions of pounds a year on career counselling, because people have not found their way.
  • The result for educators, employers and HR professionals is that it is vital to have an understanding of “the ecology of human resources.
  • As a society, we must improve our understanding of human capabilities. We believe mistakenly that creativity and intelligence vary in inverse proportion to one another. The things we take for granted as being true are the real problem; the enemy of making the best of ourselves is common sense.
  • Thankfully creativity is not dead but merely latent, in most adults.
  • Work by Land and Jarman showed that in a smaple of 1,500 children aged 3-5, 98% ranked as “geniuses” in divergent thinking. In children aged between 8 and 10 years the figure fell to just 32% and by the time children had reached between 13 and 15 years it had declined further to a mere 10%. In other words, children become less creative as they grow older. What coincides with this period of development, aside from hormonal changes and socialisation, is that they enter formal education where they have learnt a) there is one answer to every question, b) don’t look, because that’s cheating and c) don’t copy from anybody else, because that’s cheating too … even though outside of school we call this collaboration.
  • This mindset goes well beyond school and college. Land and Jarman also performed a control test of two-thousand adults (aged 25+) where only 2% ranked as geniuses. We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it, because of the ways in which we become institutionalised and socialised. Education is a big piece of this, but work is an even bigger piece.
  • Creativity is most frequently associated, in the workplace, with innovation but it is equally important in helping society cope with, and harness, technological advances. No matter what we do or where we do it, technology is going to swamp us: new information systems are going to subvert all the things we take for granted.
  • The over-25s think we’re OK, but we’re not that great. We have learnt digital technology like a second language, so we kind of speak phrasebook digital compared with our children. IT systems are becoming more and more pervasive, but they’re not fundamentally avoiding the powerful need for better and better use of human resources. To the contrary. Human resource is the only way we can engage with these things properly … and at this moment we are locked into an industrial mindset about our own capabilities.
  • Business people can help to nurture creativity and imagination by thinking of organisations as organisms rather than organisations A better metaphor is from agriculture. A farmer can’t make a plant grow. A plant grows itself. A good farmer provides the conditions for growth. And a great plant doesn’t just grow from the top, it grows everywhere simultaneously, as do healthy organisations, which have a reciprocating relationship among the parts.
  • There is a huge difference between a creative team and a committee: great creative teams require real expertise among managers and leaders to work. It’s a skill-set that we need to be teaching managers and leaders.
  • Great teams, large or small, are deliberately diverse: they have people from different backgrounds, experiences, ages and responsibilities in the organisation. The processes employed by these teams ensure that their diversity is not an impediment but a resource.
    The best senior managers are those who are not afraid to let teams congregate for specific tasks and then disband, to form other teams as necessary, perhaps one of the best ways to spread cultural information around the organisation.
  • It is essential to create the right habitat, in terms of culture and environment. Anyone who is serious about making more of people must be serious about the environment in which they work. And not just the colour of the walls: innovative organisations have a rigorous approach to questioning algorithms of behaviour and changing the environment as need be.
    Challenging stuff.

What I think is obvious is that we have a long way to go. BUT we need to make a start, no matter how small to change the inertia of creative decline. and just perhaps some of our organisations and social structures will be rebuilt into healthy living cultures.

Until next time …

My Zimbio

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Success in Failure; Humility in Leadership

Whilst hopping around the Internet recently I came across a great article on The London Business Forum website from an interview with Sir Richard Branson.  As I read it, I was struck by an individual who is totally passionate about what he does whilst also being ready to learn, change and improve. 

I remember Richard Branson being set-up for a fall on more than one occasion by our beloved British Press.  When he was trying something new or attempting a new record, the snipers of the true British spirit shot … and if he failed, the “I told you so” or “You read it first in the ***” kinds of headlines prevailed.  It was more important that he’d failed than what he’d attempted.  And yet, if we talk to any successful businessman, failure is always on their list and it’s seen as part of their road to success (and perhaps that is why so many of our current journalists will never be successful … but that’s another story!).

Anyway, please enjoy the following except from Sir Richard’s interview: 

‘Many of the audience wanted Branson to dispense some entrepreneurial advice, and he didn’t disappoint, mixing the common-sense with some fascinating and salutary anecdotes. “The importance of protecting the downside,” was a key lesson to learn, he said. This is why, when he cut a deal with Boeing to buy his first second-hand 747, it included an option to sell the plane back after one year. Boeing’s only concern, he said, was that Virgin “wouldn’t live up to its name but would actually go all the way.”

Similarly, he had a valuable tip on how to retain entrepreneurial dynamism while you’re growing: as soon as the number of staff hits 100, split the firm in two. In this way, he said, Virgin Records ended up being 20 different companies that “didn’t even share switchboards”. It’s a philosophy that Virgin still tries to observe in spite of its gigantic size. Of the group’s 200 branded companies, “none of them are massive in any particular field,” Branson said, and each has to stand on its own two feet”. The people who lead each business are managing directors, and are incentivised accordingly. “Virgin has created about 200 millionaires over the years,” he revealed.

The moment you go from one company to two companies, you’ve got to start learning the art of delegation, he added. “So what I try to do when we set up new businesses [is this]: I’ll go in, I’ll immerse myself for a month or two, I’ll learn all about that industry, so that if a managing director does come to me and wants to talk to me about mobile phones or trains, I’ll know something.”

True delegation means giving people the freedom to make mistakes, he said. “[My parents] would always look for the best in what [I] did. They were great believers in lots and lots of praise… And I think if you’re the leader of a company, this is even more important. You shouldn’t be looking for people slipping up, you should be looking for all the good things people do and praising those. People know when they’ve slipped up, they don’t need to be told.”

Another defining characteristic of Branson’s personal management style was his willingness to be humble, and to listen to criticism, where staff and customers are concerned. “I do try to make an effort,” he said. “If I’m on a Virgin plane, I’ll try to meet all the passengers. I’ll have a little notebook in my back pocket. I’ll meet all the staff.” He stressed the importance of tiny details, saying that only by getting these right will you end up with “an exceptional company rather than an average company.”

Ultimately, business is not about “balance sheets, money, profits and loss,” he argued. It is about “creating something you’re really proud of, something the people who work for you can be really proud of… the actual business aspect is simply there to be mopped up at the end.”

The fact that he never got a tight grasp of financial matters was probably a benefit, he suggested, in that it persuaded him never to bring in accountants too early in the development of a venture. “You’ll get one firm of accountants that will tell you, based on their own preconceptions, why starting an airline is a ghastly idea and every other airline fails and you’re going to lose a lot of money. You’ll get another set of accountants who’ll tell you why they think you’re going to make money. But they have no idea one way or the other.”

Far more important is to create something that you, yourself, really want and value, he concluded. “If it’s exceptionally good then people will always turn up and use it.”

Perhaps it’s time to regain and re-embrace some of the old ‘British Spirit’ without being ashamed (and without extreme nationalism).  And it’s time to put to death the insipid political correctness that will undoubtedly ruin so many ventures.  We are not all the same.  Celebrate the fact and be prepared to try to succeed, even if we must embrace failure. 

Above all, be prepared to be humble; to learn, to change, to improve … and to acknowledge that we may not have all the answers on our own, but they are often in our colleagues, friends and family if we are prepared to look.

Until next time …
My Zimbio

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Writing A Blog: Hints & Tips From Personal Experience

I have been frequently asked how I write my Blogs.

This is not the definitive list of  ‘How to write the best blog ever‘ but a compilation of the key points that have arisen from the many e-mail conversations I’ve had regarding how I write my blog …  all in one place.

Please remember that we are all very different; different backgrounds, experiences, writing styles, ways of thinking etc. Some of these may work for you; they may not, but hopefully my meanderings will offer some help, guidance & inspiration.

Finding The Subject

I tend to write something down when thoughts come into my head, or I’ve just learnt something myself or I’ve just experienced something/noticed something that I’ve done/someone else has done that has been helpful or unhelpful. But I think a key question here is, “What is your passion?” or “What are you passionate about?”  These both answer slightly different questions but when we are passionate about something we have an energy to pursue it, investigate it and express it.

As a scientist I’ve always tended to see something and think about it, but I think my biggest ‘educators’ are the times when I personally (or one of my friends) have encountered adversity.

For example, I have had to battle with serious, unexpected depression and the lessons I’ve learnt through the help I received from others (friends, counsellors, medics etc) during recovery have often been very simple but effective ways of self-protection or self-awareness.  These sorts of things stick in my mind and are always useful for evaluating what I see, situations I’m in etc.

I think my main message here is be yourself; use the tools at your disposal; learn from experiences of yourself and others.

Developing Blog Content & Style 

I think that being a scientist (logical, systemmatic thinking) allows me to break things down into smaller steps or smaller pieces. Apparently one of my gifts is communication and an ability to make complex things easy to understand. This stems from my passion for helping others to develop; I really get upset when I see people making things unnecessarily complicated or inaccessible to look good!

Keep it simple where possible and err on the side of using shorter sentences, so that you keep the reader’s interest and don’t confuse them with multiple lines of disconnected thoughts. If you are discussing a number of different subjects, or aspects of a single subject, try to draw them together so that the reader can see how they fit together and what you’re saying as a whole. I try to stick with a simple principle, ‘If it doesn’t fit with what I’m saying leave it out; I can always use it somewhere else.’

One of the best lessons I’ve learnt is to carry a notebook around with me and write things downs that when I see them or soon after: ideas, observations etc.  Capture them and write any other observations that occurred alongside. It doesn’t have to be neat and tidy but you should be able to read it and understand what you’ve written🙂

Some of you may prefer to use electronic means of recording which is fine; I just find that the actual act of writing with pen and paper somehow embeds and consolidates it more in my mind and enables me to be clearer with whatIi want to say;  this is personal choice not a dogma.

If I have a pretty clear picture of what I’m going to write about I often jot down on paper a few of the points I want to make or sketch out a basic structure for the piece (a bit like the instroduction, materials, methods, results, discussion & conclusion flow for a scientific experiment, or like writing a story).

I’m also a musician which gives me, I guess, a more random, creative, illogical side; I also have a slightly ironic  sense of humour which can help, but can also get me into trouble!! This always helps with a bit of spice & flavour.

Key points here are write it down; decide on a structure; think about a flow such as in a story so that people can follow.

Writing & Refining the Blog

Writing a blog can be a simple, quick, straightforward experience for some people. Occasionally I have been blessed with getting everything down in 5 minutes. But this is very rare and usually my one or two sentence entries🙂

Most of my meanderings take a few hours to finish; sometime that is a continuous effort; other times it’s a case of getting something down, leaving it as a draft for a few hours, a day or even longer (depending on time available, ease of pulling your ideas together etc), then coming back to revisit and edit.

Don’t be surprised if an edit turns into a rewrite! I find it helpful with longer pieces to initially write them in something like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. This allows me to edit everything, move it around etc and usually spellcheck too. I can use extra line breaks to separate out my initial ideas and as I’m a very visual person I also use a lot of colour to ‘code’ the different subjects, points I’m making etc.

Once you’ve finished I would always advise converting it to plain text (.txt) which removes the formatting for font type, colour etc and post the text from this text file into the blog. This allows two things:

a) Plenty of opportunity to re-shape, edit, rewrite your entry and develop a piece you’re happy with, and

b) by converting it to plain text you remove all the coding that Microsoft or Apple use to produce their documents. This code can sometimes confuse blog editor software and may also be very long-winded which slows down page loading etc. Just a thought.

The Use of Images

I think that the use of images is a personal choice but a guide I use is to ask myself the question, “Will the photo add anything to what I’ve written or will it take way/add confusion?

Images can be very powerful both ways.

Always try to use something that is good quality, in focus and relates to your subject or the points you’re making in some way.


Writing a blog is great but getting it seen so that people can find it and read it is another important issue.

Keywords are the words or phrases people may use  when looking for material to read. So, one of the keywords or key phrases I’ll use for this entry,  ‘how to write a blog‘.

However, there are lots of other things within the content of what I’ve written here that may be helpful to other areas, such as, ‘writing flow‘ or ‘developing a writing style’. I’m not trying to lead people to think that this blog entry has all of the answers, but I am letting them know that there may be some useful ideas here that they can use. If people like what you write they may link to you or refer to your entry.

These are great ways of expanding your readership and building relationships online.

Think about the questions that someone seeking advice or opinion would ask and make sure those words and phrases are used in your text and keywords.

Key Points: What I Have Found Helpful

The strongest driver for writing a blog is something that I feel passionate about.

It doesn’t always come out correctly first time but I get it written down and then connect these thoughts and jottings together  into some sort of flow or sequence (my Plan). Thinking of a blog as a ‘story’ or ‘scientific paper’  help me with shaping it.

Keep it simple wherever possible.

Spend time refining and checking for errors, especially spelling and grammatical.

Think about the use of images and if they will help or hinder your message.

Think about what people may be looking for and use appropriate phrases within the content of your writing but also in your keyword.

Have a go; refine your method; listen to feedback; improve what you write; enjoy.

I’m always very happy to receive your feedback and comments so please post away in the response section or send me a personal e-mail at dr.stu at ntlworld dot com. Thanks and good luck🙂

Funerals, Reflections & Relationships

Last week I attended the funeral of a good, long-time friend who died just before New Year. 

The crematorium was packed to overflowing and many familiar faces were dotted amongst the crowd of people who had come to pay their last respects.  The service contained some real heartfelt tributes and as usual, we all learnt things about our friend we didn’t previously know. 

The tributes were glowing: he was dedicated, hardworking, reliable, a loving husband and father … but one phrase amongst these tributes hit me harder than anything else in the service; it was the simple phrase,

If only he knew how much he was appreciated and loved by others.”

And that set me thinking.

I had known him for nearly 30 years, yet how often had I told him that I valued his friendship and counsel?  How often had I said, “You’re a good friend” or “I appreciate you” or “If you ever want to chat, I’m here.”

Now I know it’s very easy to become introspective at funerals and think about the ‘what ifs’ and ‘If onlys’ of life, but I do think those few challenging words are very significant: to me  and to everyone in friendships or relationships.

We all need friendships and relationships to function at our best. Many will be long-standing; some will be more recent; some will be brand new.  Whatever their status, a key factor for their success is our input (the one thing we can control), both in terms of quality and quantity.

Why do we have relationships?

We’re human beings and we need personal contact: without it we’re potentially heading for potential health risks and psychiatric disorders/imbalances.  If it were not so, why is solitary confinement used as a form of torture to break down resistance and extract information/cause harm and suffering?

The nature of relationships will vary depending on their context e.g., personal relationships will be different to business relationships, but the core requirements are pretty consistent regardless of their context.  Three common scenarios are:

‘I’m in it for what I can get out of it’:  most of these are doomed to problems and failure, and are not actually true relationships. 

‘I’m in it for what I can put into it’: these are far more likely to work if the action is reciprocated by the other party(ies).

‘I’m in it for how we can support and help each other‘: these are the most likely to survive and thrive through good and bad times.

Face-to-face contact

An important part of a relationship is face-to-face contact.  Many of these face-to-face interactions carry far more value than we realise since many non-obvious factors like expression, body language, touch etc, reinforce our words and actions. It’s at these times that we can really build each other up and make the other person feel valued and important.  It may be a natural part of our relationship or we may have to work at it.  Whichever is true, it is important.

Attending my friend’s funeral has reminded me of the importance of these ‘personal’ moments and of my responsibility to help make my relationships successful.

If we are successful in just this area, we will have made a difference to other people’s lives and, I believe, made a difference to our own life too, because as our behaviour changes in one area it will almost certainly impact many other areas of our life at the same time … and surely that can only be a bonus.

Forget the Hype: businesses are not interested in retaining exisiting customers

We seem to live in an age where what you say is really important: say the right things and everyone loves you; say the wrong things and you rapidly become a pariah!

For me the importance isn’t so much what people say, it’s more about whether they apply their words:  do they actually do what they say?

Business gurus have told us for years the importance of retaining current customers as ‘They are much easier to gain repeat business from than new customers’ etc.

I have had two experiences that fly in the face of this within the past 3 weeks. 

Two different companies ‘guaranteed’ to supply services for my business and to acknowledge this agreement in writing. 

  1. The first company did neither and did not make any response to e-mails, telephone calls, a fax or written letter (plenty of promises to call back within 45 minutes etc, just no action), despite my clear indication that I would be pursuing a refund in the event of no response: I got none,  so my bank retrieved the payment.
  2. The second company sent me acknowledgement in writing but then became seemingly uninterested in responding to my e-mails,  telephone calls or fax.  In addition, this technology-based company has an online formmail system that returns a string of errors when you try to use it.  So, a  good old ‘snail mail’ signature required letter has been sent so we’ll see if that elicits a response.  In the event of none, you’ve guessed it,  my bank will be busy again!

What I find amazing, is that I am not alone in these experiences.  Several friends in business have experienced the same response and reclaimed their payments.

Now I would have thought that in an economic environment that is not overly healthy or generous, we would all want to retain customers.

Clearly not!

So, is what these ‘gurus’ say important and will I listen to those gurus in future? 

Yes, it is and yes I will … because I know the importance of a loyal (and satisfied) customer base. Most of the ‘gurus’ I read are actually ordinary people who have built businesses from scratch and learned, often the hard way, the importance of backing up what they say with what they do.

But there are clearly too many who either ‘speak the speak but don’t walk the talk’, or who don’t know about this important principle or who simply don’t care, and for them, I fear the future is not Orange!

Incompatibility Between Avast! Free Antivirus & Window XP SP3?

I recently tried a couple of free antivirus software solutions having paid for one for several years which has now got too clever (you can’t get just the antivirus; it has to scan for malware, be a firewall, wash your underwear, the usual story) and clashes with most other protective software on my PC.

I found AVG free version to be good, but it’s huge, takes up loads of space and tries to make itself the centre of your universe .. “Do you want to use AVG as your default search engine’ etc.  It’s also pretty slow loading and within one reboot repeatedly displays a banner telling me that mscvr80.dll can no longer be found so I did a bit of research on St Google and Avast! free version came up highly recommended.  It seems to be just an antivirus and does what it says on the can; well mostly.  After a couple of scans I noticed that my desktop was erratic loading from reboot or when the PC was first switched on: sometimes it loaded but most times it showed me desktop icons but no taskbar, quick launch bar or start icon, and in that state it remained locked until a reboot, when sometimes it sorted itself out … until today.

Today I spent 7 hours searching for every solution I could that may account for the desktop not loading properly.  My PC almost lived in safe mode and I tried system restore (several times), various C: prompt commands (from web articles), antivirus and antimalware scans, but no result.

In desperation, I tried what I should probably have done first, I uninstalled Avast! free antivirus, et voila, everything worked fine.

This incompatibility with Windows XP, especially SP3 is rarely mentioned but by chance I noticed that a couple of people had reported similar problems with their desktop not loading after installing Avast! antivirus. At least one article mentioned that it was the Avast! software itself that had become corrupted.

I don’t know or understand the reasons, but I do know that if you’re having problems with your desktop loading in Windows XP and have Avast! antivirus installed, it may be worth trying to uninstall the antivirus software first as you could save yourself 7 hours of frustration (and no work!)

Our Life Experience is Never Wasted

Since the middle of 2009 I have been visiting schools on a voluntary basis to talk about a whole range of different subjects: my work, pain, drugs, clinical trials, music. 

What has become apparent is how much of the information I had thought of as specialist is applicable to students in their studies, today.  It’s been a bit of a surprise rediscovery.  For example, my background in clinical trials has allowed me to share a wealth of knowledge with Year 7, Year 8, Year 9, GCSE and A-Level students.  What’s more, I’ve also had opportunities to provide input at higher education (degree) level.

So where does this leave me with respect to all the other activities I undertake, personally and as part of my business?

Add it to my portfolio!

What I am learning more and more is that we all have our own unique life story.  No-one else can tell it: it’s ours!  That story is extremely valuable to others, both in terms of our knowledge and our experience, however little we me feel we have! 

When I take time to look back and look at my experiences (good and bad) I’m amazed how often the help, advice or opinion of someone else has helped, either for providing a solution or for clarifying my thinking.

Our experiences are never wasted.  It is usually the bad ones we remember most and that come back to haunt us, but there are many good experiences which have etched their impact into the metal of our lives.

So, why should it be any different with our career?  All of life experience is valuable for how we learn and interact with others (or don’t).  If we add our total experience together, we will be amazed at what we can offer: it’s usually more than we ever realise. 

After all, it’s free added value!

The Importance of Personal Contacts

I have pretty much lived clinical trials, clinical research & drug development for 18 years of my life! So, when I was made redundant in 2007 I decided to try something new as a career. I focused on my drumming & percussion workshops for schools, businesses, community groups … and I discovered the importance of previous experience and exposure.

I am reasonably well-known in a few circles locally for my percussion and drumming work, but my workshops, though plentiful had been voluntary input to a couple of schools for friends who were teachers: I worked full-time and did the workshops as favours. These were extremely well received and over a period of 5 years or so I made many visits.

Unfortunately, around the time I left work, there were major changes in the teachers (specifically, head teachers) at the schools where I had worked. My friends retired or left the profession and so many of my contacts evaporated overnight.

The last 2 or so years has been spent building links with new schools, but with many competitors already established, it has not been easy.

And through all of this, the old adage that “It’s not what you know, but who you know” has shouted in my face many times. Sure, I’ve had breaks and done workshops, and the future is looking bright, but it is difficult to express the frustration and sometimes blind panic that ceases hold when the very thing you’re wrestling with is what puts bread and butter on the table, clothes on your back and keeps your car on the road.

So what have I learnt?

In three words, “Never give up!”

I’ve learnt more about myself, my strengths and my weaknesses during this time than at just about any other period in my life. And I intend to work on these as I move forward.

But if you’re a teacher, or a manager who is looking for creative drumming & percussion workshops to spice up your lessons or build your times (and you’re based in the UK), I can help!🙂

Ethics & Integrity

How we deal with people is crucial to our success (and theirs) in all areas of life.

Life without integrity is like a lighthouse without a light: everything’s fine until darkness falls or the storms break.