The stability paradox

Apparently, Tom Peters once claimed that the paradox for organisations is that they have to  pursue change whilst maintaining stability.  I wonder if the notion of stability is a myth? It used to be said that leadership talk the future into existence and managers manage the status quo. Status quo (literally “the state in which”) is taken to mean the current state of affairs.  Some have interpreted that to mean a static, stable situation.  Of course, it neither is nor ever was.  Stuff happens; things change.  Managers manage in changing times.  If there’s change, there’s no real stability, so the paradox disappears.

If a company has a good and viable strategy, then reaction to external forces will force change to the execution of that strategy – and if instability means it’s not standing still, then the change means instability.  If the strategy is not viable because of external forces, then the strategy needs to change.  The change means instability.  If a company chooses not to notice outside forces, it will probably fail – hence, more instability.

So, back to Tom Peters’ assertion.  Pursuing change is necessary.  Instability is a given.  No paradox.

Have a good weekend.

To discuss any aspect of organisational development, leadership and management training, soft skills development or simply pass the time of day, please call me on +44 161 929 4145 or email me at

High performance vs tick-box cultures

ImageIf you were to design your own organisation from scratch, would it look like it does now?  Probably the answer is no.  Organisations evolve and functional areas which served a purpose at the time of establishment may become less relevant over time, yet we retain them because, well, we’ve always done things this way.  As the organisation evolves, so we see more controls and systems and processes creeping in to bind together the otherwise rather disparate strands of the organisation.

There is a danger in all this that we evolve into a tick-box culture – one in which everything is driven by rules, regulations, systems, controls and processes.  You find that, in order to spend a small amount of money on the organisation’s behalf, you have to get a capital expenditure authorisation signed by three directors.  You can’t take a day’s holiday at short notice because the rules won’t allow it.  And the tighter the controls, the less freedom you have to make decisions without having to gain committee approval.

The tick-box culture (TBC) may be necessary in some environments.  If I found myself on an oil-rig, I would want to know that it’s not ok to light a cigarette and throw away the match.  Here, the rules save lives.  In knowledge-based organisations the rules may just be plain silly.

In a high performance culture (HPC) the rules and regulations are a given, and sufficiently rigorous to prevent chaos, but sufficiently relaxed to allow freedom of thought and action.  People see the rules as a support, rather than a driver, for what they do.

Let’s take an HR example.  In a TBC, managers set objectives by a specific date, because the system tells them they have to.  There’s no enthusiasm about the process and many do it grudgingly to ‘get it out of the way’.  Similarly, they complete appraisals by a specific date to appease HR, when really the whole process is getting in the way of their day job.  Finally, they sit down and half-heartedly produce a personal development plan with each staff member, usually at the eleventh hour before the HR Department’s imposed deadline.

In an HPC, managers understand the organisational strategy and their own department’s role in supporting that strategy.  Objective setting is taken seriously and objectives are directly tied to strategic aims.  Appraisals are encouraging, supportive and developmental and the personal planning which results from the appraisal is genuinely designed to help the individual develop and grow both for their own and for the organisation’ benefit.

Try this:


Mark on the line where you see your organisation now.  Indicate with an arrow whether it is moving more towards the HPC or TBC end or standing still.

Now mark on the line where you see yourself.  Is your mindset more in line with the HPC or TBC?  Which way are you moving?

Finally, mark where you believe those with whom you work closely would place you on this line?  And which way do you think they would imagine you are moving, if at all?

If you are closer to the HPC than the organisation, what can you do to change it?  What small changes can you make in your own work area which shift you and your team closer to the HPC?

If you don’t make those changes, are you in danger of preserving or promoting something mediocre, which you could change for the better?

To discuss management/leadership development, soft skills training, business strategy development, public speaking or facilitation, please do give me a call on +44 161 929 4145 or email me at

Wasting your energy – misdirected selling and ROI

I am quite a fan of David Maister, author of “The Trusted Advisor”.  One of his ideas which particularly impressed me is about how we target the wrong people when selling our services.  In professional services, we can divide the world into clients and non-clients and people who are and are not aware of their needs.  The greatest return on investment comes from clients who are aware of needs.  It’s an easy sell to them – we already have a good working relationship, they have some measure of trust in our ability and they have already identified a need for some particular offering from us.

The next easiest category is clients who are not aware of their needs.  Again, the trusting relationship is established and, if we work diligently to understand their business or the market forces which may affect their business, then it’s reasonable to propose work which can be really useful to our clients.

The third area for work on a diminishing scale of return on investment is with non-clients aware of a particular need.  Now we enter the world of bids, competition and beauty parades.  The tendering process is long, expensive and painful.  It may yield nothing, and time spent on it is non-billable and an overhead.  It cuts into time when we could be doing chargeable work.

Finally, the area of least likely return is the non-client with no established needs.  These are the cold prospects, and warming them up is hideously time-consuming and expensive.  They are on our wish-list – organisations we want as clients but to whom we have nothing material to offer.

The paradox is that most organisations spend most of their non-billable (hugely expensive) time chasing categories three and four, instead of focusing their energies on categories one and two.  And that focus is about moving up the relationship ladder, from the lowest category, acknowledgment, through understanding, acceptance, respect, trust and finally to bond.  If we take the time to develop our established relationships, we use our energy more productively, selling appropriately and getting a better, cheaper and quicker return on our investment.

If you’d like to talk about management or leadership development, soft skills training, business strategy or organisational development, please do give me a call on +44 161 929 4145 or email me at

I look forward to hearing from you.

Enthusiasm, cynicism and the kindness of strangers

ImageLast week I was running a training course in Singapore for a group of business people from Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.  Over the years, I’ve done a lot of work in Asia, and something that strikes me every time I visit is the great courtesy I am afforded by complete strangers.  This is not to suggest that Europeans are discourteous, but that the default courtesy control in Asia seems to be set to maximum. In contrast, across Europe it has become increasingly cool to be cynical and there’s almost a fear of appearing enthusiastic.

We could learn a lot from this.  I love enthusiasm.  Much as I hate gardening, I really enjoy the BBC radio programme, ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ because it features people who are absolutely passionate about their subject, and who speak with enthusiasm, joy and humour about it.

I regularly facilitate large conferences and I am struck often by the dryness of language, the dull presentation and the lack of verve in the keynote speakers whom I introduce and who are supposed to set the tone for the conference.  They invite the audience to share their enthusiasm without displaying any – and using the word ‘enthusiasm’ whilst sounding like they are reading the shipping forecast is not enough to convince me that they feel any passion about their chosen topic.

If we can use richer language, align our words, voice and body language we might convince other that we are genuinely enthusiastic and so bring them along with us – enthusiasm can be infectious if we can drop our guard long enough to allow it in.

And I can’t help feeling that, if we were to show a little more spark and joy in our work, we might start being nicer to people.  Weirdly, if we are nice to people, they feel more motivated and they work more productively.

What’s missing in work is kindness – being nice to people for no good reason.  It costs nothing and it feels good.  And when we see the results of kindness and courtesy, perhaps it will reignite our enjoyment of work.

Think back to the day on which you started your current job.  Most of you will have been excited at the prospect, perhaps slightly nervous and certainly enthusiastic, because the job didn’t simply land in your lap.  Over time, you may have been sucked into the cynicism of others, had the positive energy sucked out of you by the office’s ‘mood Hoovers’ whose existence seems to depend on their ability to make everyone’s lives as miserable as their own.  When we start to lose that spark, we forget to be nice to people.  We begin to regard the with suspicion, and we start to play politics instead of simply getting on with whatever we though we were paid to do.  And then we lose that common courtesy which I find so appealing in Asia.

I’m planning a business trip to Oman right now, and another to Kuala Lumpur, and I look forward to the delight that people in each of those countries seems to find in the company of others and the sheer joy they appear to take in daily life.

If you want to discuss any aspect of leadership, management, behavioural skills or business strategy training, meeting facilitation or organisational development, I’d love to hear from you.  You can reach me at or on +44 161 929 4145.

I look forward to hearing from you.

LinkedIn endorsements and other mysteries

Being an independent trainer, I use a number of online tools to raise my profile.  RecentlyImage I’ve been trying to fathom how LinkedIn selects the words which pop up as areas to be endorsed. I have some vague memory of including some keywords in my profile at some point in the past, and though I can no longer find them in my profile, I suspect that whatever I wrote there will now appears as an endorsable skill. Luckily, I didn’t include my hobbies there.

The endorsement thing is a bit of a game, and some days I play and on other days I can’t be bothered. I am delighted that so many complete strangers have endorsed me for skills that they have never witnessed. I think it’s a attempt at a grown-up version of Facebook “likes”. I would’t take it too seriously.

There is one really useful feature of the endorsement game for me – each time I go into Linked in and the 4 boxes pop up, I am reminded of people with whom I have had little contact recently, and it prompts me to re-establish contact. In this way, I am beginning (slowly) to get back in touch with LinkedIn contacts who were fading into the mists of time and memory. Since I became a freelance trainer, I have made it a policy of contacting a couple of people a day for no good reason, and the endorsements boxes not only prompt me to do so, but give me a ready made list of today’s contacts. Sometimes I spoil myself and contact three people. I get work from referrals, word of mouth, repeat work for existing clients and sowing seeds and occasionally remembering to water them. The moment I endorse someone, it sows a seed. I am careful, I hope, only to endorse people for something I believe they possess. That prompts them to think of me – and in a couple of cases already has yielded work or at least a conversation.

Meanwhile, I do see some good in LinkedIn. I like the degrees of separation notifier and I like the fact that, since people theoretically use LinkedIn as an online networking tool, they are prepared to forge introductions. So if I see someone useful (yes, I will be mercenary and use that word) I can see how many degrees of separation exist between us and ask someone to introduce me to someone who can introduce me to them. This is no different than meandering up to someone I know at a conference and asking to be introduced to someone else. And it works very well.

Like anything, LinkedIn is only as good as our use of it. If the internet is,as Stephen Fry said, a city with fashionable areas, sleazy areas, leisure facilities, nice and horrible people etc, then LinkedIn represents a rather mixed neighbourhood, populated by some very nice people, some shady people only there to sell their wares and me. And I can choose where I go within the neighbourhood, choose who to speak to and choose my own friends.

And now, I had better go and see who has endorsed me today.

Difficult delegates

I was prompted to write the following in response to a posting on a training discussion forum which asked about handling difficult delegates on a training course.  As it happens, I’ve been commissioned to write a book on managing difficult people in the workplace, so this was very much in my mind at the time of posting. Although the book will be about  managing difficult people in the workplace, rather than in the training room, the same principles apply.

In essence, I believe that most of us do the best we can in whatever situation we find ourselves. We are the sum total of everything that brought us to that point. I cannot possibly know everything about everyone who comes to a training session, and I have to start with the belief that their fundamental reason for being there on that day (with some exceptions) is not to make my life miserable, because it’s not about me.

In a sense suggesting that delegates are difficult is to suggest that I have an ideal and that they are no conforming to it. Equally, I may not be confirming to theirs. And at some level, there is a supreme arrogance in expecting people to conform to my ideal. Therein lies bigotry, prejudice and exclusion. I like some people more than I like others. I find some fascinating and others boring. I know how I’m feeling and what has influenced my mood before I walk into the training room and I have no idea about anyone else’s day so far. I have been infuriated at times by what I have perceived as ridiculous challenges to what I have said and discovered later that this was simply someone’s way of learning and straightening out their own thinking. I have watched people looking bored and appearing not to be focus and realised that they are reflecting deeply on the conversations around them and retreating inside to examine their own thinking. I have seen people apparently highly engaged who have given a course a low evaluation.

It’s terribly difficult to be resilient in the face of behaviours that don’t suit us and match our hopes and expectations and I don’t claim mastery of it. I do know that if I stop taking things personally – the delegates didn’t come in for my entertainment or to please me – I then pay more attention to the subjective experience of the individuals in the room and, by working harder to understand their experience, can create a better experience for them.

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development, soft skills training or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.