Archive
Decisions

When I interviewed British Olympic Association Chairman Lord Moynihan for my book Decide, he told me a story about the Athens Olympics – the Games before he took over: ”I’ve got pillowcases with ‘0.545’ written on them. At Athens Kelly Holmes won gold medals at both 800 and 1500 metres. The men’s 4×100 got a gold. Chris Hoy won his first gold, which was the 1km time trial. Our coxless four nearly always delivers, and they got a gold. So we had five gold medals. Their collected time if you add all their finals together was 12 minutes and six seconds. But the aggregate difference between them and the silver medallists was just 0.545 seconds.”

Our cycling supremo Dave Brailsford did numerous interviews after the stunning triumphs of Team GB in the Velodrome. How did this success come about? It was the aggregation of marginal increments, said Brailsford.

There’s a lesson here – beyond cycling, and beyond the Olympic Games. When we set ourselves goals and make big decisions, we tend to have blue sky ambitions and big picture visions. Yet so often real progress comes from small changes and relatively modest improvements, that are still significant enough to give us competitive advantage.

Thinking small – but positively – can pay big dividends.

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It often suits us to delay decisions. What we sometimes do is pick a landmark in the calendar (Christmas, Summer Holidays, Labor Day in the US), and agree to make the big decision after that.

The London Olympics make a classic watershed. For the whole of the UK, and Londoners in particular, London 2012 has been for years a distant beacon. Now it is somewhere between an all-enveloping news event and a national celebration to which the world has been invited. It’s full-on, it’s immeasurably exciting……and it will soon be over.

For athletes, officials, the media and indeed Danny Boyle and his team, London 2012 has been the focus of incredibly hard work, planning and training. As the medals roll in, national doubt and cynicism seems to have been replaced by something close to euphoria.

But it is all going to end on Sunday 12th August (give or take two weeks of the Paralympics). What then? For the medal winners, their coaches and families, time to celebrate success, or live with not quite having made it. For the army of games makers and volunteers, time to take a well-earned rest. For the media, time to get over the laryngitis, and to find something else to write and talk about.

For those of us who have been putting off big decisions, Monday 13th August will be a big day. Time to decide, yes. However that’s not where we start. Every decision is a journey – not a single step. I believe it is absolutely essential to avoid ‘early decisions’ at all costs, and use a methodical process.

But ‘methodical’ doesn’t mean that it is all about logic. Academics have made great progress over recent years in understanding how our brains work. Our conscious mind can only cope with a tiny fraction of what we see and experience. Smart decision making is a mixture of good thinking and harnessing the power of the subconscious brain.

For me the process goes like this:

• What is my goal? What am I really trying to achieve?
• What is my main opportunity? How can I realise it?
• If there is a problem, how can I set about solving it?
• Look at the options. It is not just a matter of looking at the most attractive upside. I also need to avoid disastrous downsides
• Choose the most viable option – and make the decision on a balance of reason and gut feel
• As well as making the decision, I also have to ensure that we can sell it up, down or across. My decision will only work if I can communicate it and make it stick…
• …which is all about implementation. Nor is the world going to obligingly stand still and allow me to pass. Carrying out my decision may take some time, and throughout I have to stay alert and flexible. Competitors or enemies won’t make it easy, and I am always going to have to deal with outside factors, slings and arrows – and our fickle old friend, Lady Luck.

As you look forward to making a decision after the Games are over, you might be tempted to think it’s going to be a straightforward business. I don’t want to alarm you, but it could turn out to be a bit more complicated than you might imagine!

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It’s like anything else. If you set yourself up as some kind of expert, friends, colleagues and family will be fairly brutal when you seem to be failing the “physician heal thyself” test. You might think I am getting better at decision making, having written a book about it. But nobody ever said it was easy.

I’ll share my personal dilemma with you. I have done the same day job for nearly 25 years. As AAI is my own company, by rights next July I ought to give myself a gold watch. I have worked for advertiser clients and with agencies of various sorts, sizes and nationalities in pursuit of forming better relationships, and making them more productive.

But that is not all. 2011 was the year I started writing in earnest – and not just blogs and tweets. At the end of March, I delivered the manuscript of Decide to my publisher. Ever since I have been working energetically on my new vision of how the agency pitch process should work – Mutual Decision™. As it happens, it is an idea that emerged directly from my research into decision science.

So I have two challenges:
1. A book to publish and benefit from
2. A new consulting service to launch

That gives me two clear goals, each of which is an identified opportunity to realise. Isn’t that enough as a basis for a whole series of decisions? You might think so. But what I want to share with you is that neither I, nor anyone else in this situation, will be really successful without first being brutally clear about where I am now – the jumping off point.

As it turns out, I wasn’t being honest with myself. I was actually overwhelmingly excited about the book and taken up with research, interviews, new learning, analysis, and the sheer sweat of writing one hundred thousand words. I kept telling myself that the day job was the continuum, and the reduced level of activity was simply a function of less hours in the day left over from writing.

Where was I – really? I think it was a sabbatical by any other name. The dictionary says a sabbatical is “a period of paid leave for study or travel”. Almost right – except for two important details: I wasn’t paying myself for it, and the ‘study’ was so engrossing that my normal frenetic travel almost stopped.

I now realise that once the Games and my normal two weeks holiday are over, I will indeed be coming back fully motivated and energised by the first sabbatical of my life.

That is an important piece of self-realisation, and will make planning the next few months much easier, and more productive.

Hopefully there’s a lesson to share here. It is always worth postponing planning and decision making just long enough to work out where you are coming from.

Of course it is not always going to be a sabbatical. There is a long list of possible situations:

• A career path that is about to change
• A city or country where you have lived for a long time, but are going to leave
• A relationship that is coming to an end
• Sadness, despair, grief, frustration
• Elation, happiness, increased confidence
• Realisation that one’s current level of income is inadequate
• Conviction that current concentration on maximising earnings has to give way to a different life balance

• The moment when one knows that priorities have to change in any important way

It may be that one’s situation is actually a function of more than one set of circumstances. But it will always pay to be brutally clear about where you are.

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So 91 Conservative MPs voted against the Government’s House of Lords reform bill. Despite the fact that Cameron won the vote thanks to Labour support, the timetabling bill was withdrawn, and there is no chance of this major piece of constitutional tinkering hitting the statute book any time soon.

Two immediate questions arise. First, what happens next? Secondly, how did the Government find itself in the position of proposing legislation which is anathema to many of its Conservative supporters, inside and outside Parliament? In a sense, the first question is less interesting, because there is plenty of time to for us to speculate, and the business managers to wheel and deal. The Tory rebels think the legislation is a dead duck. The Coalition partners will presumably go through the motions of keeping it on the table.

Today’s newspapers speculate that the Prime Minister promised Nick Clegg that he would support Lords reform in compensation for the defeat of the Alternative Vote referendum. This is surely the slippery slope of Coalition. What is the point of the largest single party (by nearly 50 seats) being suckered into promoting a policy that has nothing to do with Conservative philosophy, that cannot be considered any kind of priority, and is regarded with total indifference by the electorate as a whole?

It is not enough for the Coalition to sort the economy out – vital though that is. There has to be a vision, an overarching raison d’etre for this Government.

Labour are rightly disliked for what they did in office – not just in terms of economic policy. There was waste on a massive scale, and also a nanny state mentality that compounded the waste. There was also laissez-faire on benefits and immigration. As the country became weaker and poorer, it must have seemed to most voters that the beneficiaries from Labour policies were almost anyone but them.

Like many people, I felt after the 2010 General Election that the Coalition promised well. A balance of Conservative and Lib Dem policies, built around economic realism, should have been a refreshing change after the nightmare of New Labour and the dark night of the happily brief Brown regime.

But there doesn’t seem to be any vision, or higher purpose. Cameron and Clegg have faithfully followed the New Labour model of an endless succession of disconnected policy announcements – all purporting to right a wrong, or save money somehow. It has been undiluted problem-solving, with nary an opportunity in sight.

Britain needs hope, not despair. It needs to preserve the best, as it accepts cuts and sacrifice. The British people need to understand where our leaders are coming from, and where they are seeking to take us. If they are going to support the Government, they need to believe in it, and what it stands for.

The scatter-gun approach is unconvincing and unmotivating. Given the overriding economic need for what Brown used to call prudence (until he abandoned it when he sold our gold reserves for a mess of pottage), a mixture of small ‘l’ liberal ideas and the preservation and conservation of the best of Britain, would have been popular.

That’s not what we have experienced.

Cameron has some crucial decisions to make. He should spend the recess looking for vision, big ideas, and a vote-winning programme for the next two and a half years. If Clegg wants to remain as Deputy PM, he will have to accept this vision – and say goodbye to irrelevant flights of fancy like “Senators” with 15 year terms.

If they can’t agree on a vision, the Lib Dems should be allowed to concentrate on avoiding electoral oblivion in 2015, while Conservatives give us all something to rally round and get excited about.

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I liked that Pret A Manger promotion for the Diamond Jubilee: “Keep it clean for the Queen”. Simple call to action. Positive CSR from a popular brand.

People say that the Jubilee was a rehearsal for the Olympics. But was it? Hardly. Just four days with almost everyone on holiday. The Olympics plus the Paralympics are going to last for over six weeks, admittedly with a gap in the middle. Apart from weekends, and annual holidays, everyone will be at work.

LOCOG has consistently assured us that London can manage – offices and businesses, the educational world, LRT, the rail network, the roads, the health and emergency services, utilities, retail, restaurants, cafes, the entertainment industry, communications of all sorts. But can they? Will they? Will London be able to cope with the direct inflow of people for the Olympics and Paralympics, over and above the millions of tourists that come here every summer? Oh yes – and there’s us – the people who live and work here.

I’ve started to listen to my tweet-mate Vince Cabbie. I was critical of him in the coalition, but now he’s thinking of quitting politics to become what I call a full time taxidermist (taxi driver who’s continually getting stuffed). He talks a lot of sense. He says the road system is in the worst state ever – in terms of road works, obstructions, diversions, and all manner of restrictions.

Today – two days after the Jubilee – the Mayfair / St James’s area was mayhem. It probably was everywhere else as well, but there was no chance to find out unless you went there on the Tube. Just imagine all that plus the dedicated “Games Lanes” and the 4000 BMWs to fill them, not to mention the parking restrictions. Remember the embarrassing lack of loos we saw last weekend, with the massively increased demand (if that’s the word) the Games will bring. Think about the effect of  additional security, necessary as it obviously is.

How will people get to work, or school or college? Get home? Travel about town? Be on time to pick up the kids? What about restaurants, theatres, and all the venues that have to keep to time? How will husbands and wives, partners and friends, families and mates reach each other?

My slogan – for now right through September – is even simpler and more far-reaching than Pret’s. It is “Keep London Working”. I appeal on behalf of us all, our visitors, and our long-suffering city, for all branches of Government, Boris’s praesidium, the Met, the Armed and Security Forces, Fire and Ambulance authorities, the borough administrations and LOCOG to work together and take a long hard look:
• How bad could it get?
• What is the worst case scenario in each element of infrastructure?
• Are there any interventions and schemes that might make things better?
• Are there any decisions already taken that could profitably be reversed?

I’m not criticising the decision to bid for the Games, nor the huge effort that has gone into making it all possible. But I do worry that chaos and crises could do a lot more than knock the gilt of the gingerbread. There are so many clever people in London. So many of them could make a contribution to keeping the show on the road. I believe the authorities would do well to invite some of them to help – including those in our marketing and communications community for whom problem solving is one of the core skills.

For me it is equally as important for those who live and work in London to be able to carry on as normally as possible, as it is for us to look after and protect our visitors.

This is not as realatively remote as the Eurozone crisis, Afghanistan or Syria. This is here. This is now. Keeping London working is paramount. It won’t happen just because we want it to, as Vince would probably say.

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I always worry for people who hire Max Clifford. Not because he isn’t an effective publicist. He clearly is. It’s just that when someone you’ve never heard of engages Clifford, you know that Max has immediately become the story. It is a bit like that with Robert Jay of Leveson Inquiry fame. And I mean fame. He’s the star – the Perry Mason, the William Garrow, the guy in the John Grisham novel. Jay’s voice, his whiskers, his encyclopaedic grasp of dates, documents and potential misdeeds are Leveson to most of us.

So I felt a bit uncomfortable last week announcing Mutual Decision TM, AAI’s proprietary new pitch system. Pitches belong to the clients who want new agencies, and the agencies who want new clients. So why is a mere consultant launching a rival to the tried, tested, and traditional way of doing things? You know, RFIs flying out to dozens of agencies, more chemistry meetings than chemistry classes at school, a brief inviting five or six agencies to compete for the Golden Apple by preparing a free campaign, more iterations by the finalists, two rounds of research and three to four months entertainment for all.

The truth is, it may be the traditional way of doing things (albeit a relatively recent and substantially flawed tradition), and it has been tried often (not least by us, I confess), but it has tested badly. It is unnecessarily long drawn-out. It is nakedly exploitative. It is seriously expensive, not least for the client in terms of time and opportunity cost, and especially for the pitching agencies. Nor is there any evidence that a creative contest is a reliable way of developing the campaign the client wants to run tomorrow. Estimates vary, but most experts would settle for less than 20% of pitch creative going live.

Worse, there is still less evidence that this jamboree is a good prelude to a long and synergistic relationship. My analysis is that the process is too one-sided to segue naturally into a balanced partnership. Also in the four cases out of five when the winning shop’s creative has been turned down, the relationship kicks off with creative tension, probably exacerbated by the inevitable hassle over remuneration.

Mutual Decision TM is a new way of doing pitches, which is far more likely to find the right agency for the client, and the right client for the agency. It should deliver a productive relationship from a standing start. It is also much fairer, faster and less costly.

Sometimes you cannot afford to wait for the newsmakers if you believe in change. I very much hope that clients and agencies will choose to adopt our new way of doing things. That would be a win/win. OK, you’re right. If that happens, it will be a win for us too!

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We are fragile beings. All our hopes and fears, ups and downs, aspirations and plans are predicated on the mens sana being supported by a corpore sano. It has not been a great couple of weeks in that regard for your correspondent. Out of as clear blue sky as you get in post drought Britain (aka Noah’s flood mk II), my back has given in to years of abuse, and I have been laid low by what my parents’ generation used to call lumbago.

I am not talking heart disease or cancer. This is not diabetes or one of those critical complaints that can trigger payments from the insurance company. But staggering around looking like one of the senior citizens on a road sign does nothing for the morale. Having to pull out of a golf tour having paid for it goes against the grain.

Even wrestling with the demands of a commuter’s day in London is beyond me at the moment. So far from skipping down the escalators, I can barely put one foot in front of another to cross the road.

It is humiliating. Also it makes you think about the millions of people who are far worse off – and have no reasonable chance of recovery.

What matters is maintaining a sense of perspective. Everything we do depends on us (fitness and mental ability) and other people (are they OK?). Decision making, and all the cerebral stuff I get very excited about, have to take second place to something more basic and elemental.

So in place of the pontification and cynicism you may have noticed on this blog, please note today at least a modicum of humility and realism.

We are what we are. We are what we are capable of. We owe so much to others, because we bring nothing into life, and we can take nothing out.

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I voted Conservative, and was strangely excited about the idea of the Coalition. The tit for tat of two party politics had become a huge bore, apart from being seriously counterproductive. Tories and Lib Dems working together to repair the ravages of tired old New Labour seemed like a good plan.

Two years on, and I am very disappointed. The new “Snooping Law” is the last straw. It smacks of totalitarianism, and is about as palatable as the “Hosepipe Hotline” apparently set up to encourage people to rat on their neighbours.

Add this to:
• The “Granny Tax”, and a tax policy seemingly dedicated to beating up everyone who voted Tory, while still managing further to alienate the people least able to withstand the pressures of this recession
• Aircraft carriers without aircraft
• Lack of a credible exit strategy in Afghanistan
• Pusillanimous concession to US extradition requests
• The HST
• Abolishing zebra crossings
• Going nap on wind farms
• I could easily go on to a list of 20 or more…

…and you have to conclude that with or without Steve Hilton the Government is two sandwiches short of the ability to make a sound decision on almost anything. They have shown themselves to be prone to rushing into ill thought-out early decisions on almost every subject.

The Times today compares Mr Cameron’s style with that of his predecessors, and concludes that his is a government by chums. Forget style. Look at decision making, and you have to conclude that The Times has left out a ‘p’.

I worry that there will be more Galloways, a Livingstone back in City Hall, and goodness knows how many wild men and women elected to councils up and down the country, come May.

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So now we know the identity of the US Army Staff Sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians. Staff Sgt Robert Bales is now held in a high security facility in Kansas. I heard the head of the US Army interviewed on BBC Radio this morning. He was asked why the decision had been taken to spirit Bales out of Afghanistan, when President Karzai said he should be put on trial in Afghanistan for a crime committed on Afghan soil. The General said, ‘we always do the right thing’. I heard another Army spokesman saying that when NATO went into Afghanistan, it was understood by all parties that in the event of incidents of this type, the accused soldiers would always be tried in their home countries.

Yet Christopher Tappin, the retired British businessman accused of selling batteries to the Iranians for use in missiles (but no evidence has been presented), was disgracefully extradited to the US, and is still in a high security facility in New Mexico, having been refused bail by a Texas court.

How does this work? How come it is OK for the US to insist on home country justice for an alleged multi-murderer, while denying it to an apparently respectable Englishman in his mid-60s?

Where’s the special relationship, Mr Cameron? How do you define ‘doing the right thing’, General?

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Last week was one for dire decisions. To name just two:

• Caving in to the letter of our misbegotten extradition treaty with the US in the case of Christopher Tappin conveys absolutely no credit on the Home Secretary, the Government as a whole, British judges or the wretched European Court of Human Rights
• Did the Syrian regime have a shred of legitimacy left before the decision to shell the temporary press centre in Homs where Marie Colvin met her untimely end? Probably not. But they are now well and truly damned, with President Assad facing at least as grim a future as his oppressed people

How are we supposed to react to decisions like these? Is rational analysis possible? Or are we better to rely on gut feel to condemn them out of hand?

Using a slightly broader perspective….

Mr Tappin is alleged to have been involved in selling batteries for missiles to Iran. Whether he has a case to answer is a mystery. The extradition treaty does not require evidence to be presented in the UK. So Mr Tappin is presumed guilty, flown under guard to the US and remanded in a high security jail. Not a great decision by David Blunkett who was Home Secretary at the time the treaty was “negotiated”. Not a great decision by this Government to submit meekly to the American demand. For my money the decision traps involved are:
• Lack of frame control by the Labour Government when they gave in to the US: failing to define the problem properly, and being unduly influenced by the frame of the US government. Also lack of foresight. They surely wouldn’t have agreed to the legislation if they had envisaged the kind of cases that would arise
• This Government and the judges? Overconfidence in their own judgement

As for the Syrian regime, it is not really worth arguing about which decision traps they have fallen into. Plunging in? Sunk cost? Failing to learn?

All we need is gut feel for this one. We are back to a phenomenon we have visited before in this blog: the removal of the veneer of civilisation. Assad and company were beyond the pale before they decided to shell the messengers. Now? Surely just a question of time before deliverance for the suffering country and retribution for the butchers.

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