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Yesterday I was doing a bit of chest beating on behalf of larks.

Whether I am right or not in my belief that they (we!) are the master race, I think it’s fair to say that owls are never going to be as well placed until the day your diary is full of meetings from 6pm, 7pm, 8pm, and so on.

As it turned out, my yesterday turned into today on a conference call with California, so I have had a taste of being an owl. However owls don’t then have to drive to London at 5.15 in order to resume life as a lark!

Personality is a big influencer of decision making – as in all business activities. Of course our personality profile is determined by a lot more factors than relative effectiveness at different ends of the day. Let’s look at other elements of our make up:

  • There is the Driver, Expressive, Amiable, Analyst spectrum, developed by Peter Urs Bender and others:
    • Drivers (Eagles) are leaders and achievers
    • Expressives (Peacocks) are extroverts and visionaries
    • Amiables (Doves – or Pussycats!) are team players and patient
    • Analysts (Owls) are thinkers and rigorous
  • And we all know about Myers Briggs (probably the only daughter/mother team responsible for a major invention):
    • Extroverts (wide world) versus Introverts (my world)
    • Sensors (take information on board) versus Intuitors (interpret and add meaning)
    • Thinkers (logical, task driven) versus Feelers (emotive, people-focused)
    • Judges (quick decisions) versus Perceivers (need more information)
  • On both scales we are combinations of characteristics, rather than being one or the other – but it is more helpful to understand the primary factor than to become lost in cocktails

Importantly we know from the work of Meredith Belbin that winning teams (especially teams responsible for making decisions) need to have a balance of personality types. Next time you are sitting in a meeting (you won’t have long to wait!), do a bit of personality profiling around the table:

  • Are you top heavy with Drivers and Expressives?
  • Or moving pretty slowly with amiables and analysts?
  • Are the Judges becoming frustrated with the Perceivers?
  • Is it tricky getting the Introverts to take a broad view?
  • And are the Intuitors getting fed up with the Perceivers?
  • Finally – and this is where we came in – are the Larks already running out of steam before the Owls have got into their stride?

The key is to know your own strengths and limitations, and to understand what all your colleagues are like, and what they are capable of. Sometimes we have to make decisions on our own. But most of the time it is a team game. A pure example of Behavioural Economics in action.

Hopefully with a basic understanding of profiling, you can prevent it becoming a contact sport!

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It is high time this blog was a bit more controversial.

And, talking of time, it is important  you know that this column (like nearly all its predecessors) is being written at 7am. I am a lark, not an owl. I’m also prepared to step aside from the cosy orthodoxy of saying that it doesn’t matter which you are.

You see, I think the larks have it. Certainly as far as making decisions is concerned. It stands to reason. In most organisations there are more meetings in the morning than the afternoon. Often the first meeting of the day will be at 9.00, or even 8.30. Typically one meeting will then follow another.

When can you do your preparation for these meetings? The night before, you say? It is possible, but you have to be on line to access facts, data, reports and so on, and that is so much easier at the office. And even owls are more tired in the evening.

The lark on the other hand has that priceless two hours or so before corporate hostilities commence in earnest to do the preparation, to rehearse arguments, and generally to limber up for what is hopefully going to be a series of decision making (or ‘decision-contributing’) sessions.

The early start also allows you to reach the Californians before they go to bed, the Aussies before they go to bed the next day, people in Asia while they are still at the office, and Europeans before they rush into meetings.

In the morning the eyes are wider open and the brain is sharper. Additionally how comforting it was to read in the paper this morning that people from northern climes have bigger eyes and bigger brains!

So more power to the elbow of fellow larks – everywhere.

There is just one small problem. That dreaded foe time shift can pitch even a zealous lark into owl territory. This very evening I have to be on a conference call at midnight, linking me into a presentation on the West Coast.

I shall have to kid myself that it is not very late…….but exceptionally early!

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When a decision has not gone well, people give a variety of excuses. They talk about competitive action or external events, disasters, mishaps or sheer bad luck. Short of mildly suggesting that maybe some of these eventualities could have been predicted, there is not a great deal you can say.

Other excuses tend to relate to the decision making process itself:

  • We didn’t have enough information to go on
  • We had too much information. It was really confusing
  • So and so wasn’t able to make the crucial meeting
  • He/she came to that meeting on 26th July, and overruled us
  • The boss said it would be OK, but maybe…..
  • We hired those consultants, and we felt we had to listen to them, but….
  • Perhaps we didn’t look at enough options
  • We looked at too many options, it was difficult to keep focus
  • We were so enthusiastic about the upside of that option, we must have underestimated the potential for disaster
  • We were so worried about downsides, that we were probably too negative

However the commonest excuse of all is (and there are some familiar variants):

  • I was too busy
  • He was too busy
  • She was too busy
  • They were all too busy
  • We were all too busy

It is a funny thing, “busyness”.

Busy is a word we use for various reasons:

  • out of pride (I’m so busy, I’m indispensable)
  • as an excuse for not doing something
  • as a put down to someone we believe is not half as busy as us

I am more convinced than ever that being busy, while it undoubtedly gives you more status than being idle, is no substitute for being efficient or effective.

Nowhere is that more true than in the taxing world of decision making. Decisions – considered decisions – are by their very nature important. All the key stages in the process deserve maximum input and concentration:

  1. Clarity on your goal
  2. Best data and intelligence – and keep looking for more
  3. Frame – and if necessary keep on framing till the problem is well and truly defined
  4. Structure the most viable options for solving the problem
  5. Identify upsides and downsides in each option
  6. Reward / risk analysis, ensuring that you are not swayed too much by the attractiveness of an option if it has a dangerous downside
  7. Carefully weigh reward and risk, and then make the decision.

It’s difficult to see how any member of a decision making team could be too busy to give each of the seven steps their undivided attention.

If anyone was too busy, that’s not an excuse. It’s an admission.

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There was a remarkable response to my suggestion (Friday 15th July) that CEOs would get more benefit from being like the tournament  golfer – employing a caddy and coach – rather than relying on “support” from the traditional retinue of executive reports. The piece suggested that a CEO (or anyone else who has to make important decisions) would be a better decision maker with inputs from one adviser and one constant companion, than relying on the normal diet of meetings, presentations and documents. A number of people said to me “I could do with a caddy”.

Actually I seem to have been guilty of a bit of a solecism in the spelling. You can use either, but if the Rules of Golf say “caddie” for the singular of the species, I will go for that. After all a singular caddie is what you want, not what we golfers call a “bag puller”. Cynics would say there are enough bag pullers in the corporate world, as it is.

But let’s look at the coach aspect. All the top golfers use a coach either all the time or from time to time. Why? Because there are faults or involuntary changes in the basics (grip, stance, alignment, tempo) that you simply can’t see for yourself. An expert watching you swing a club, and importantly comparing what they see now with what they remember from before, is going to provide far superior counsel to anything you can work out for yourself.

That is important, because most CEOs, while acknowledging corporate democracy and listening to what their executives tell them, still value their own opinion more highly. If you believe in personality profiles, you know that most CEOs are ‘Drivers’. According to www.Personality100.com, Drivers are:

action-orientated

decisive

problem solver

direct

assertive

demanding

risk taker

forceful

competitive

independent

determined

results-orientated 

I put the ‘self-reliant’ characteristics in italics. To take just a few of them, if as a CEO you are independent, assertive, determined and forceful, are you going to take a great deal of notice of those below you in the hierarchy? 

But you might listen to your coach! With an expert to call upon, why wouldn’t you listen and take their advice on a strategic decision? As well as coaching on the physical / technical side, the Darren Clarkes of this world also work with sports psychologists to make sure their heads are in gear. Think of the pressures faced by business leaders. That might work for them too. 

The caddie? He or she (don’t let us forget famous Fanny or the beautiful Brenda Calcavecchia) may not be the best choice as strategic counsellor, but for practical advice in the execution of a decision – none better.

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My apologies to regular readers: no blog posts this last couple of days. I have been on my annual pilgrimage to The Open Championship. This year the tournament has returned to the enchanting small town of Sandwich – half as old as time, and England’s premier port in the Dark Ages, before the sea receded.

Apart from huge enjoyment and fun, what have I gained from this year’s Open? Two principal learnings of particular interest to the decisionomane:

  • That even the world’s finest golfers need to make constant changes of tack as they plot their way around testing links like Royal St George’s
  • That the tournament pro’s dynamic duo of coach and caddy would almost certainly work beyond the realms of golf

Let’s start with the relentless sequence of decision making that confronts each competitor, whether they have shot 65 (lowest yesterday) or 82 – the highest score. As ever, sport is a valuable analogue to life. For each shot, you have to:

  • Work out the maximum upside outcome, and then go down the scale from perfect to adequate
  • Work out maximum downside outcome, and scale from catastrophic to livable-with
  • Do the reward/risk analysis, and settle on your strategy
  • Select a club
  • Aim it
  • Decide how hard to hit it
  • Grip club and take stance
  • Backswing + Downswing -> Impact

Obviously short putts don’t require as much thought as a drive at a Par 5 hole with out of bounds on the right (like the 14th at Royal St George’s). But the pressure is on the brain all the way round, just as you are being tested in terms of physicality, dexterity and stamina.

Life’s like that. Every day requires endless decision making. Not all these decisions are equally difficult. But some need more effort and technique than others. In life, as in golf, you also have to adjust for luck and competitive action.

Now for what I think is an even more important thought. Top golfers, like all professional athletes, need coaches (psychological as well as technical). But the golfer has the priceless asset of a friend, counsellor and gofer – namely the caddy. A round in the Open at Sandwich is nothing like as lonely as, say, that of a tennis player. Batsmen have partners. Footballers and rugby players have team mates. But the latter also have to be primarily out for themselves. The caddy is for you. To help in every way. At the minimum a second opinion. At best a crucial line on a putt or the counsel to play a safe shot with a seven iron, rather than trying to hack a wood from deep clag. Even more important: someone there, someone to talk to.

Wouldn’t CEO’s and other business leaders do better with caddy or Man Friday constantly at hand? And regular coaching?

If I was the CEO of a big outfit, I’d far rather rely on a great coach and a good caddy, than all the direct and indirect reports in a matrix organisation. And think of the thinking and deciding time you would have, freed up from all those meetings!

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  1. Is this meeting absolutely necessary?
  2. Does it have to take place tomorrow / this week / on the 31st, or whenever?
  3. Who HAS to be there?
  4. What advantage is there in inviting the ‘nice to haves’?
  5. How long have you allocated? Is that long enough? (Or indeed too long?)
  6. What’s on the agenda? Can we get through all those items in the time given? Really? If we can’t, which items shall we leave out?
  7. Who’s kicking off and managing the meeting?
  8. Who’s responsible for winding it up, summarising what’s been achieved, writing up the conclusions / decisions?
  9. Who is in charge of deciding what to do next, eg:
  • Endorsing the decision?
  • Communicating the decision?
  • Implementing the decision?
  • Or – give me strength – setting the next meeting?

     10.Who round here is responsible for working out the  optimum balance between thinking, doing and meeting?      

Delegate assemblies like the Roman Senate and most parliaments and legislatures are obvious examples of the need to have meetings. These gatherings generally have a purpose: to decide things.

As a social and communicative animal, homo sapiens likes getting together with fellow members of the species. The purpose of these gatherings is basically…….to gather and chat.

Unfortunately in business we seem to have adopted the second type of meeting. Is it any surprise they seldom lead to decision making?

The Ten Hygiene Factors might be worth a try the next time you have that “let’s have a meeting” urge.

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The date was 4th July 1776. The meeting was the Second Continental Congress. The decision was to declare independence from Britain. The documentary evidence: The Declaration of Independence. The vote had actually been taken two days earlier. The significance of the 4th was the signature of the Declaration itself – as claimed by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Other sources point to the actual signing taking place on 2nd August. It rings true, doesn’t it? All that excitement and partying, and then it takes a month to authenticate the documentation!

So, congratulations to America on this day. A brave military campaign culminated in a remarkably orderly beginning to statehood. A gathering of the clans produced (thanks more to Jefferson than the subsequent editing by other delegates) a very erudite and powerful piece of prose (despite the tautological opening sentence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident”).

To voyage, as one does, from the sublime to the easily improved-upon; how much better it would be if most business meetings produced a fraction of the decisiveness and eloquence of that Congress in Philadelphia.

Why don’t most meetings succeed? Here’s just a short list of possible explanations:

  • People attend so many meetings, it is difficult to create any sense of specialness or occasion
  • Most meetings are not set up with an agenda that drives decision making
  • Most meetings either have too many attendees or too few
  • The effect of having too many people at a meeting is either that some attendees try so hard to get in a word edgeways, that they are not listening to what others are saying, or that others are inhibited from making any contribution at all
  • When there are too few it is often because most individuals with decision making power and ability are too busy to attend, or otherwise occupied
  • Too little time is spent setting agendas
  • Often too little attention is given to recording what action is required from whom after these meetings  

There’s an excellent article in the June issue of Harvard Business Review by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann, supported by a McKinsey advisor (Professor Dan Lovallo), and a McKinsey executive (Olivier Sibony). It’s entitled “Before you make that big decision…”. The authors provide a 12 point checklist for detecting bias in group decision making.

Bias is one thing. Poor decision making process is another. As I have said before, the ‘Early Decision’ is a popular favourite. ‘Early decision’ is a polite way of describing the open or covert determination by one of the leaders in a decision making process to go one way rather than another. I am talking about early stages – before any balancing of upsides and downsides. To count as an early decision it has to take place before the reward/risk analysis. Political parties do it all the time, and so increasingly do business leaders and other people prominent in public life.

Talking of early decisions and the Fourth of July does get one thinking again about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair. Since when did America, or any civilised country, adopt the principle of presumed guilt? The draconian treatment of DSK and the immediate fanning of the ‘Hot Rabbit’ debate always looked suspiciously like a set up. Assuming all charges against him are dropped, which of the US justice system and French politics is going to look more dodgy? Close run thing I predict. Either way, the arrest of the IMF chief and the way it was done would have probably shocked Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers.

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As I wrote yesterday, The Times recruited more than 100 CEOs and Chairmen of our biggest companies to take part in a two day summit called “Ambitious for Britain”. Their communiqué was published in Wednesday’s edition of the newspaper in the form of a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I looked at the five ways to “pull Britain out of its anaemic recovery”, and pointed out that it was a slightly odd list.

In today’s blog I look at decision process. I wasn’t present at the Summit. I have no inside track. So what follows is supposition and (hopefully informed) guess work.

Let’s start by looking at what decision traps await a big group of powerful business leaders, temporarily obliged to make common cause with each other? Are there particular problems when you take these “big beasts” out of the packs they normally dominate?

There are several possible decision traps, all well documented in decision science, which might have hampered the group’s work:

  • GROUP FAILURE: Refusing to accept that a team of bright people can make bad decisions
  • PRESSURE PARALYSIS: Getting the frame of reference wrong under pressure
  • ANALYSIS BYPASS: Too much information / not enough time to analyse it properly
  • INFORMATION UNDERLOAD: Believing you have enough knowledge to proceed, when you actually need more intelligence and research
  • ‘WHAT IF’ WEAROUT: Not being rigorous in looking at possible scenarios.

But I think the greatest problem was not learning from Meredith Belbin. Belbin is the management theorist, who while lecturing at the Administrative Staff College (later to become Henley Management College) in the 1960’s, discovered that well-balanced teams would always outperform teams more or less exclusively composed of ‘stars’. His 1981 book Management Teams gave the world key membership roles like:

‘Plant’: the left field problem-solver

‘Resource Investigator’: networker who recruits outside expertise, so reducing the group’s dependence on received wisdom

‘Monitor-Evaluator’: the devil’s advocate and objective stickler

‘Completer Finisher’: detail zealot

It is highly likely that the Chairmen and CEOs were not any of the above, but a mixture of two other Belbin types:

‘Shaper’: rigorous visionary who can guide the group under pressure

‘Co-ordinator’: the one who insists on everyone being consulted and listened to.

 Another problem for the Summit delegates must have been an imbalance of personality profiles: too many drivers and expressives, too few analysts and amiables.

Overall there is a big lesson to be drawn from the Summit, I believe: a big team comprised of dominant leaders is very unlikely to be functional! In this instance, it is not a criticism of the leaders themselves, but of the idea that the Summit could ever achieve its goals.

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The bizarre message above was the probably apocryphal corruption of a World War 1 signal that should have read: “Send reinforcements. We’re going to advance”. 

Incidentally, how much was three and fourpence? Answer – 16p, about half what you’d now need to use the loo at Paddington on your way to the party! Only the over 40’s in the UK remember the introduction of decimal currency (on 15th February 1971). The under 40’s and the rest of the world’s population struggle to understand how we could have ever bothered with 20 shillings to the pound, and 12 pence to the shilling. 

Miscommunication is a major enemy of good decision making. Clarity is everything – and we all understand that. So how do wires get so crossed, so often? 

I think email has a lot to answer for. We completely rely on it. But if you think about it, email works differently from any kind of mass communication we used before:

  • It is not basically designed for a conversation (like a meeting or telephone call)
  • It is a convenient way for me to ask a question while at the same time giving the answer – or at least my spin on that answer
  • If you and I enter into a two way email dialogue, we will be as concerned to register our own point of view as to find out what the other thinks
  • Pre-internet, we used to write letters to each other – often for the same reason. But the pace of mail delivery determined a much longer time frame – usually too slow to be described as a dialogue. We simply had to meet or talk on the phone if we wanted to move things forward in real time

Texting is subtly different, because of the restriction on the number of characters you can use. It’s also – even in a business context – more intimate. An exchange of SMS is like a version of a telephone call, with the contributions from either side staggered for convenience.

So why do I say that email often leads to miscommunication? Mainly because it is a talking medium, not a listening medium. If I am more concerned to tell you what I think, than listen to what you think, that’s a recipe for those crossed wires we looked at earlier.

Not a great outcome in a two person dialogue. But it can be a disaster if participants in an important decision process are using email to disseminate and compare views – which happens all the time.

Mistakes, misunderstanding and miscommunications arising from such situations will cost a lot more than three and fourpence to resolve.

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Inevitably we apply a value system to the language we use in the business world. Let’s try some basic categorisation: 

Good

  • Busy
  • Successful
  • Important
  • Decisive
  • Ruthless 

Bad

  • Not very busy
  • Doing quite well
  • Follower, not a leader
  • Open-minded
  • Easy going 

But that’s a view of the world through the eyes of alpha males and females, leaders, and those who aspire to lead. It also speaks volumes about the personality profiles of both the describer and the described. 

None of this is radical. We all know how our psychological make-up affects behaviour, and how we are perceived. Belbin and others have used the insights tellingly to create balanced teams with a higher than average chance of success. 

What worries me is what I believe to be the most obvious casualty of the ethic that is characterised by being (or being seen to be) mega-busy, multi-tasking, and rushing about: having no time to think. 

You can draw simple pie charts for yourself, colleagues, bosses, direct reports, anybody; dividing each day into thinking and doing. Am I wrong, or is there a drastic doing over thinking imbalance in the executive workplace these days? 

I see even in the best companies (especially in the best companies) two dangerous trends emerging. The first trend shows itself as an over-reliance on meetings Here are some of the warning signs:

Too many meetings…

  • …which rob everyone of thinking and analysis time
  • Too many people at the meetings…
  • …with the result that attendees are trying so hard to get in a word edgeways, that they are not listening to what others are saying
  • Too little time spent setting the agenda for these meetings
  • Too little attention to recording what action is required from whom after these meetings
  • Worrying about not being at a meeting. You can’t think if you’re always in meetings 

Trend #2 is about communication – and particularly about computers and mobile devices. Watch out for:

  • Spending too much time sending emails and texts
  • Being over-reactive in terms of putting a priority on answering every email and text you receive
  • Devoting potentially productive time to social networking sites
  • Times when you use email and text to avoid speaking to someone and risking reaction and debate
  • Times when you’re more concerned to engage with people remotely than with people around you
  • Worrying about being out of touch. Switch it off! 

Thinking time is food. It’s fuel. It’s an investment in problem solving and decision making. It’s priceless.

 

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