Tag Archives: teamwork

Making Complex Ideas Easy to Understand

If you read my last blog entry you’ll remember that I discovered what is perhaps my key skill, making complex things easy to understand, following a long period of working with people whose background was very different to my own and thought very differently to myself. 

This discovery didn’t come overnight and it was only after working in often difficult and frustrating circumstances that I was able to find my talent, even if it did have to be confirmed by people around me before the ‘light went on’ and I realised what it was! 

In reality, the little phrase I now use to crystallise my skill, Making the Complex Easy was only finally formulated a couple of months ago whilst talking to my business mentor about it.  Thankfully, Sandra is very persistent and also very perceptive and the phrase eventually fell out as I tried to capture what I did in less than a paragraph!

We were discussing my experiences whilst studying for my PhD; whilst working in the pharmaceutical industry; whilst working in schools; with friends; in church.  Time and time again the examples we discussed had the same repeating theme: 

How can I make it easy for others to understand what I’m saying?

This was important to me becasue I have always been someone who has had to work hard to understand things.  Combine this with a  severe lack of contentment if I couldn’t really ‘get inside’ and understand what I was trying to learn.  Knowledge for me has more to do with its application than knowledge for knowledge’s sake

By understanding something I can use my knowledge in how I decide to move forward and use it in my own life and situations.

So, I suppose it was a natural progression that I should want others to enjoy the same opportunities.  Here are a few of the instances we discussed of how and when I’d made complex things easy:

  • My PhD was focussed on pain relief and what was involved in helping us control painful stimuli, so important in conditions like malignant diseases.  More than once I was asked to explain what I was investigating by friends who had no science background.  So, I was often trying to explain complex pharmacological and biochemical processes in simple terms like opening and closing gates, keys in locks, motorways and side roads.
  • One of my tasks whilst working in the pharmaceutical industry was training sales representative, many of whom were from a marketing and selling background and without any science input, on the decidedly unsimple process of our body’s immunological response to infection by viruses.  Here terms like cavalry, snipers, secret messengers and chewing and spitting were used to demystify the process.
  • My last role in the pharmaceutical industry before I accepted redundancy was to provide technical and information support to physicians and researchers on the data available to support the use of a specific drug in difficult-to-treat and potentially life-threatening conditions.  The problem I was faced with was that I had over 600 slides in my presentation with a usual time slot of a lunch break (i.e., between 10 minutes and 1 hour).  My solution was to reverse the process and devise an interactive presentation where my audience told me what they wanted to talk about and we ‘dipped-in’ and ‘dipped-out’ of the presentation and information available.  This seemed a revolution to many of my audience and I spent hours discussing how they could put together a similar format for their own work, thereby enabling the passing-on of important information in a more targetted way: reducing a complex array of slides to easy-to-digest, smaller segments.
  • Whilst working I often took time out to visit schools and help children to understand what they were learning in the science of sound arena.  As a drummer and percussionist I was used to making sounds (noise some would call it) and as a scientist I understood some of the principles behind the sounds I was making.  So I took samples of my drums and percussion into schools and we experimented together and began to understand what made some sounds high, some low; some loud and some soft. What amazed me after these lessons was that I received a lot of feedback on how the children had used some of the more socially orientated skills (listening, talking, thinking together) and the reasoning and experimental approaches in their other subjects and in generally working together in  other lessons.  Making it easy in one subject had been transferrable to other areas of school life (and hopefully in their wider life). 
  • My daughter, who is no scientist, was revising for her GCSEs and needed to understand the basics of the electrophoresis of DNA for DNA profiling.  Saying the word is difficult, let alone understanding it.  So I explained that the long strand of DNA is cut into lots of smaller pieces by enzymes (chemical saws).  The result is a bit like a shoal of fish:  some very small; some larger; some longer; some big and some huge. The plate onto which the sample of ‘chewed DNA’ is placed is like lines of fishing nets and when the electric current was switched on, it was a bit like a river or the tide flowing, taking the fish with it.  Little fish was pass easily through the nets and the longer and larger fish would get stuck more quickly or have to work harder to swim through the nets.  The huge fish wouldn’t be able to get through at all and would stay where they were.  At the end of the experiment when the electric current is switched off, it is like taking a snap shot or photograph of where all the fish are.  The ‘bands of fish’ are like the bands of DNA on the plate: smaller fish/pieces of DNA have travelled furthest, largest fish/pieces of DNA haven’t been able to move at all.  My daughter understood this more pictorial, less scientific approach and manged to answer questions on her GCSE paper, getting a Grade B which was a true miracle.

… and I guess that’s why I’m so passionate about making difficult things easy to understand … once we understand them we have chance to use the knowledge and achieve more than we thought possible.

There will always be those who like to keep things complicated because it gives them a sense of power and importance; they are the only ones who know.  But in a world where increasing co-operation is becoming a key factor (especially in business) and clarity of understanding paramount, the sharing of knowledge in an easy to understand way is, I believe becoming ever more crucial, not  only for success, but for survival.

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What We Have Not What We Don’t!

I don’t know about you, but one of the biggest hurdles I’ve had to overcome (and still fight daily) is the idea that others know more than me, especially in areas where I am dubbed an expert.

I think a lot of it goes back to when I was younger, especially in my teen years where, although I was in the top set at school there were those around me who were like a cerebrum on legs: they oozed ability, knowledge and were more concerned with where they’d lost two or three marks in their exams than with where they’d gained them!

The problem with hanging out with these guys wasn’t anything to do with their personalities: most of them were really great people to be around.  It was the toll that it all took on my self-confidence and self-esteem.  My mind had a field day, reinforcing all those doubts that had ever dared to enter my thinking, or had been placed there by others.

It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I was forced to go back and revisit these difficult and confusing times when recovering from serious illness.  During the long, slow, often painful process that was called recovery I was forced (in the nicest way possible) to see these things in their true perspective and identify the lies that I had taken on-board and made an integral part of my life and psyche.

One of the biggest mistakes I had made was when I started looking at my abilities in comparison to others.  We live in a competitive world where we are continually compared to others BUT there is no need for us to do it to ourselves.  When we go for a new job, invariably our skill sets, talents and background will be compared to those of others competing for the same job.  That is the interviewer’s job. 

HOWEVER, we want to be at our best in those situations, showing others our true self and abilities. 

If we focus on what we don’t have and what we can’t do as well as others, then we will never see our own unique talents; our own unique skills and the things that we CAN bring to the table that others can’t. 

Here’s a couple of examples from my own life that may help:

  • When I left school, I went straight to university but was so clueless and dispirited about what I wanted to/could do that I gave up after a term (though I did return with my first drum kit … but that is another story!).  I worked for 3 years and then decided that I would go back to studying as I had a much clearer idea of where I wanted to go (and where I couldn’t go at that time without a degree).  I entered the first year of my degree expecting to be worse than the fresh young things entering straight after their A-levels.  I looked to the brightest of them for encouragement and help but I was always aware in my own mind that I wasn’t as good as them.  That was confirmed in my exams at the end of the year.  For some reason and I still don’t know why, I decided over the Summer holidays that I would really work for myself and make sure that I understood what I was doing.  This meant re-learning a lot of what I’d not learnt very well during my first year.  The second year was different.  Nothing changed in my ability to work with others, but my internal focus was now on what I could do rather than what I couldn’t.  I really WANTED to learn and understand to the best of MY abilities.  I came top of the year in my second year exams, something I could never have dreamed of.  I wasn’t the brightest on paper (my A-level results wer mediocre at best) but my focus had changed and I’d achieved my potential (albeit with a lot of hard work).  I passed my degree with a higher grade than I would ever have expected and then went on to higher study.  The point I’m trying to encourage you with is that if we look at ourselves it’s very easy to see what we lack.  But we have so much to offer that others don’t, and others rarely see the failings in ourselves that we do!  I’m definitely not trying to propose some self-help mantra but I am suggesting that a change of focus can bring a change of attitude and facilitate us reaching our fuller potential. 
  • Another example was when I was working as a member of a Medical Department’s clinical research team in the pharmaceutical industry.  I knew some of my strengths:  people skills, patience, generally up-beat and good to be around etc.  But, it took several years of working with the Dark Side, i.e., members of the Marketing Department, to really bring my core skills to the fore.  Medical Departments generally work to a dinosaur type time-scale; it takes a long time to design, set-up, run, and report clinical trials.  Marketing work very much in the here and now and want results today (or yesterday if possible). Initially I worked to set-up a Medical-Marketing Interface, a group of people from both departments who could get together on a regular basis to discuss what their priorities were at that time, what they were for the next year and the reality of what information was likely to become available or be wanted in that time.  These were not easy meetings but they gradually evolved into a broader set of discussion forums that really helped the two departments work together more effectively.  They opened the way for more constructive interaction rather than shooting at each other from the parapets.  Through them there was also much closer collaboration in the construction of sales and marketing literature and this is where I discovered something that had probably been obvious but I’d never seen it!  My personal ‘gem’ was an ability to make complex and highly technical scientific and medical ideas easy to understand by all, including those from a non-technical and non-scientific background.  This did two things: a) It boosted my confidence; I did have something special to offer and b) it paved the way for my last role in corporate business, that of communicating and building professional relationships with members of the medical and research communities and providing fora in which we could openly discuss  data supporting the use of specific drugs in difficult-to-treat-conditions.  It was also interesting that when I left my job, many of the most moving ‘good-bye’ messages came from these same people.

It took me a long time to realise that it’s not always simply how much we know, it’s a lot more to do with recognising our own skills and talents, developing and using these to the best of our abilities, whilst never missing the opportunity to hear what others are saying about us.  As we refine our path, we will be amazed at what we have to offer and as with my university exams, we may just move from being one of the crowd to being a leader. 

Even if we don’t, I can guarantee that you’ll feel so much better about yourself and be more confident with what you can offer.

HR: A waste of Time?

How many Human Resources departments contain people whose ability to communicate on a human level is close to or less than zero?

I have friends who see themselves as leaders of people and therefore, the ideal material for a career in HR, when they would be better suited as guards in a prison camp.

Just recently a local school was in need of help from the Local Education Authority due to problems that have arisen through poor leadership.   When things came to a head, the messenger of doom from the LEA HR Department advised the staff that the problem was in hand but they were no means out of the muck so they’d better not rest on their laurels.

Excellent! Why not just say, “You bunch of incompetents!  You need our help and we are going to be watching every move you make.”  Like Boris in Golden Eye, “We are invincible!

Had the problem arisen through shortcomings by the very experienced staff who taught at the school, fine; but they weren’t!  They were the result of rules  imposed by a rather single-minded head, who had little regarded for advice by teachers, parents or the LEA and who ruled with an iron rod in a velvet sack.

Separating out the issues from the emotion, this situation did not need a social incompetent from the LEA HR department to exercise their authority.   It needed and still needs someone to say, “You know what?  This is a pretty sticky situation you’re in but you have the experience, we have the expertise so let’s work together and we’ll sort it out.

HR departments are no different to any other.   They are run by people and need (perhaps more than ever, because of the weight of authority they carry, good, basic, grunt level human interactive and social skills.

(As a quick aside … Why do they deny this authority?  In case of legal comeback?  Smoke and mirrors?  Deceit?  I can still remember being told by one HR Commandant that they can only advise and not tell … hmmm!)

It’s not about power (though I think for many it is about getting a kick/security from being in control and influencing others; not necessarily for good).   It’s about empowering; giving people the tools and support they need to achieve the tasks and overcome the threats, barriers, hurdles they face.  Poor leadership says much more about the leaders than those they lead.

There is a flip side to this …

There is a saying that “where the darkness is darkest, the light shines brightest.”   I want to thank those seemingly increasingly few members of HR departments who really do stand out as being people who fit the job like a silk glove (rather than a boxing glove).  Those who

  • Are a source of inspiration, support and common sense in a quagmire of ego
  • Really are the personal side of a department that purports to be about people
  • See themselves as having a personnel role rather than just a project manager

Those people who prove daily that HR does not stand for Human Remains.

Surely, if HR is going to be effective they have to communicate and interact effectively with the people for whom they have responsibility/oversight.

If they do, great.

If not, then they are potentially rather a waste of time!

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.

What I Do or Who I Am?

I have recently been enjoying Cuban music, in particular that of the Buena Vista Social Club and its members.

For those of you who are not familiar with this group of musicians, the story is a modern-day fairytale …

Cuban music has for decades been the envy and shining star of the World (especially Latin) music scene. Many of the stars who put it on the map had retired or had to find an alternative living to make ends meet: selling lottery tickets or shining shoes in the street, or selling tobacco.

In 1996 Juan de Marcos González, a young Cuban bandleader and arranger was fascinated with the old stars of Cuban music traditions such as Son, Guajira, Son Montuno, Rumba and Bolero. He set out to see how many of them were still living (many had been stars in the 1940’s, 1950’ and 1960’s). To his amazement he was able to contact a large number of these national treasures of Cuba’s musical heritage; the list was impressive:

  • Don Rubén González – legendary pianist and pioneer of the mambo
  • Orlando ‘Cachaito’ López – third generation bassist
  • Ibrahim Ferrer, Piya Leyva, Raúl Planas, Manuel ‘Puntillita’ Licea and Omara Portuondo – legendary singers
  • Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa – tres player and guitarists
  • Amadito Valdéz – percussionist
  • Barbarito Torres – Laoud player extraordinaire
  • Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal – Cuban legend, trumpet
  • … plus more

In order to understand the stature of this group, each one of these names was at the very top of their profession, many having had a significant impact on the history and direction of Cuban music. Each one of these musicians (plus other top calibre musicians) performed together, in the same room at the same time to record the largest selling Latin album ever (over 8 million copies sold). Everyone enjoyed working and performing on the album and no-one was interested in where their name went on the list of credits. Music was being made for the love of the music and no thought was given to any potential financial gain (though this was eventually considerable).

Live performances in Amsterdam followed release of the CD, and the jewel in the crown was when this group of Cuban musicians were able to play a sell-out concert at Carnegie Hall, New York in 1998, captured on film and CD. When you read the album notes and DVD booklet or watch the performances, the joy and emotion of making music together is clear.

This fairytale ending to the story was that these humble people found a new lease of life as they achieved global recognition and ‘stardom’ when many of us would think of taking it easy: most were in their 70’s or 80’s (Compay Segundo was in his 90’s).

By 2005 many of these great characters had passed on and only recently (Feb 2009) the great Cachaito also died … but their legacy continues.

Why have I taken the time to mention all of these people?

Well, imagine a group of top name Rock n’Roll stars gathering to record an album, or business ‘icons’ producing a new book. Now think about the ego problems; who they would work; who they wouldn’t work with; who would want their name at the top of the list?

For me, the great power and impact of these Cuban recordings is the enjoyment, passion and love of the musicians for their music that shines through so clearly. Everyone is in it for everyone else, making the whole band look great. It’s even recalled that at one stage, Ibrahim Ferrer had a bad throat and was struggling to sing and suggested that perhaps someone else should finish the album! That’s a bit like Eric Clapton suggesting someone else should finish off his guitar solo. This level of humility is rarely seem today in a world of get what we can, when we can, however we can.

This excursion into Cuban music has taught me a lot more than just the notes and beats. Engaging with characters of history (and today) who are prepared to make everyone else look good by playing their part has re-challenged me to ask myself, “Is that the sort of character I am? Do people use me in for who I am as well as what I can bring.”

I read many stories today where the key to a ‘successful’ career isn’t so much what you can do, but what you a as a person bring to a particular situation. I also read that our output usually reflects our personality.

All I can say is that I hope some of my ‘performances’ haven’t really let people know what I was feeling on the day!!

I know that rediscovering my love of Latin music through encountering these characters has re-challenged me to be a person that other people want to know, rather than a person whose talents are admired. It has also reminded me that I cannot try to project and hide behind a different ‘persona’. Just as music is too transparent for that, so too is our daily walk. If we are not consistent, the cracks and inconsistencies will soon show!

I guess my priority is consistency as a person and as a business professional.

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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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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