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Profit by changing behaviour


Hidden time

28th June 2017

The question I have posed to myself across the board is: ‘What’s the least number of steps I can take to complete tasks?’ Not just at work, or in my sport, but in everything. In a way, it’s working out how to be as lazy as possible and how I can get the best return for the least effort.

I crashed whilst mountain biking in the Pyrenees last week. It hurt. Ten days have now passed and tomorrow I will have my tenth ‘first’ examination of the injuries. Each time the conclusion has been to refer me onwards, and at each link in the chain they have repeated the same first examination and induced the same eye-wateringly painful response. Not one person in the chain has been happy to take the word of the person I saw before them. I am getting intensely frustrated by being poked and prodded without ever moving the treatment onwards to the next stage.

Today, the first sign that we may be moving forwards, was when two separate departments rang to tell me about the same appointment to see the next person in the chain. That’s a significant amount of repetition and wasted energy. Each and every one of these people were doing their best, and yet somehow, between them all, we have wasted hours going over the same ground.

The paradox is that if there is one statement I hear more than any other it is: “If only I had more time”, or its sibling: “I don’t have the time.” We live in a time famine. I see lots of people working longer hours than they should, neglecting their personal health in an effort to get the job done because of the pressure they feel under. It’s not a huge leap to ask the question whether, just like examining my injuries, there is a chunk of time needlessly wasted that is placing people under unnecessary pressure.

Rather than start by examining what others are doing, I decided to assess what I am doing to see whether I too am guilty of the same. I’m ashamed to say it’s been an embarrassing process. I did think I was efficient and effective with how I spent my time. I don’t watch television, except very occasionally. I’ve ditched the distraction of social media and I’ve figured out the best time to get work done is before anyone else is up. In short, I felt a smug sense of satisfaction that I was extracting the most value from the time available I could. It turns out I was wrong.

What I noticed was that when I open an email, I will often have a casual glance to see what it is about, and then come back to it later. So most emails are opened at least twice. I have a pile of papers on my desk that I must have re-organised at least four or five times, rather than dealing with it all once.

We were making a meal for friends the other night and I had to make two additional trips to the shop for ingredients I needed. I was reading an article and picked up on a reference mentioned within. I searched for the reference online and found myself distracted by something else I saw. I’ve no idea how long the distraction lasted, but it was too long. In short, it’s poor performance. It’s a waste of time. What annoys me most is that my hobby of ultra-distance bicycle racing demands a disciplined approach to pit stops to minimise time off the bike, as it all counts. I’m obsessed by thinking through the sequence in which I do things in order to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness. What I have failed to do is to transfer this learning more generally.

And so the question I have posed to myself across the board is: ‘What’s the least number of steps I can take to complete tasks?’ Not just at work, or in my sport, but in everything. In a way, it’s working out how to be as lazy as possible and how I can get the best return for the least effort. Of course this is nothing new.
Japanese methods of manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s obsessed about how to take out unnecessary steps in the production process to ensure it was as efficient and effective as possible. I’ve been surprised at just where the savings to be had exist, from the trivial of realising I could empty the dishwasher with less moves and less opening of drawers and cupboards, to the more important realisation that if I introduced a better process for coding research articles, I could spend far less time trying to find the source of useful insights.

Above all, what has struck me most is the need to consciously seek to refine the process, which requires you not to do anything in the first instance, until you’ve thought it through. I am hoping that as I begin to refine and improve processes, I will habitualise them and that pre-thought will become redundant.

Why bother? Just think about it. If during the course of one day you could spend ten minutes less doing what you do, that equates to 60 hours a year, or five, 12 hour days of activity, free of charge. I believe my ineptitude means I will release even more than this. This is time that could be spent studying, playing with the children / grandchildren, sleeping, exercising or doing whatever you want it to be. What it isn’t is time saved. You can only spend time. Think of it like this: Finding time in this way is a bit like finding loose change down the back of the sofa; it’s your money, but you will get more value by doing something with it than you will by leaving it where it is.

Dominic Irvine © 2017


Communication makes us lazy

16th May 2017

We don't all need to be snazzy communicators and inspiring orators. Some of us just need to be the best at what we naturally do well.

First published in the HR Director on 9 May and Insights (Chartered Management Institute) 11 May 2017

Our obsession with well-calculated and polished communications is nuts. We have conflated the ability to communicate well with the ability to do a good job. And it’s wrong. It is driving a lazy approach to understanding that is costing us all access to a wealth of talent and ability. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me explain what I mean with some examples.

I’ll be honest, I only approached Paulus Quiros, the custom bicycle builders based in Swansea, after conversations with several other bicycle manufacturers had left me somewhat underwhelmed. The Paulus Quiros website did little to inspire me; the pictures weren’t great, the information was limited and the layout felt dated, but I was running out of options. I wanted to find a bike frame builder who really understood the engineering underpinning bike design and could combine this expertise with an open mind to work with me on the type of bike I wanted. What has since followed has been one of the most insightful, rewarding, engaging and thoughtful customer experiences I have ever had and has given me much food for thought. But I was so very close to walking on by based on the website experience.

I had a similar experience when searching for luggage bags for my bike.  The Buggy Bags website lacks engagement to say the least, but having had a disappointing experience with another well-known company, I approached them to see what they could do. Again, the experience was engaging, thoughtful, challenging and ultimately rewarding. But had I not had the poor experience with one of the market leaders, I would never have approached them.

The penny dropped when a friend was complaining about how the organisation she worked for expected her to be something she simply was not. Whilst very capable at what she does, being an inspiring and decisive communicator is not how she does things. Reflective, thoughtful, quiet and considered are far better descriptors. I pondered on why it was so important that she became the sort of communicator others wanted her to be. Gut feel said it was wrong.

It is uncomfortably easy to dismiss these people as not worthy of attention, simply because the initial experience does not live up to the slick and polished presentation we have come to expect. Getting the best from all three has required time and effort on my part to learn and understand who they are and what they can do. It’s like opening an uninspiring door of a building to find a beautiful cathedral inside; you have to be curious enough in the first instance to turn the handle. Once inside, you need to take the time to walk down the knave and in and out of all the chapels to appreciate the depth and quality of everything that lies within. It’s all too easy though to walk on by and never open that door.

In business, management and leadership programmes focus on the importance of communication: how to inspire others, how to create compelling visions that employees will find engaging and how to deliver the type of ‘stump speech’ that puts fire in the belly. Managers and leaders are taught how to have ‘performance conversations’ in which they explore how their employees can deliver more value. But what we don’t do is spend time learning how to be more curious and appreciative of what others do. We neglect the starting position that accepts people as they are and explores what we need to do to get the best from them, without the expectation that they need to fit in to what typically is thought of as the ideal.

But this is not about accepting mediocrity; imagine a scale of -5 to +5. The organisations and people I have described would probably score -3 or -4 for the outward expression of their capabilities. If we trained them well and invested significant effort, we might improve that score to -1 or even 0. But it would be a lot of effort to get them to a place that is still some distance from those who would score +4 or +5. However, if they invested that same effort improving where they add value the best, such as their engineering brilliance, their manufacturing know-how, or their process expertise, then the value they can offer would be substantially greater. I know where I would rather they spend their time. But this places a requirement on us to learn what work we must do to extract the best value from them.

Working with these people has fundamentally changed my approach to sourcing products and services. I now seek out the uninspiring doorway and turn the handle. I engage in conversations, recognising I may need to put some work into understanding what they do and how they do it. Yes, it’s much harder work, and yes, there are people who are neither good communicators, nor have much to offer, but if my experiences are anything to go by so far, don’t be put off by first impressions; there is an enormous wealth of talent that’s missed simply because branding is not their thing.

Dominic Irvine © 2017


Let’s hear it for gut feel

4th May 2017

If it feels wrong - it probably is.

First published in The Huffington Post on 6 March 2017

After the First World War, much work was done to find a way to measure fatigue but it was deemed such a subjective concept as to be impossible to develop any meaningful way of objectively measuring it. It was not possible to fathom out the complex interaction between emotional, physical and mental aspects of fatigue in a way that could be reliably and accurately counted.  And yet, we all know the feeling of being fatigued and how tired we are.

Roll forward a few decades and Dr Gunnar Borg invented a measurement scale that when exercising, would allow someone to express their level of exertion on a scale between six and 20. This score equated reasonably accurately with their actual heart rate (multiply the score on the scale by 10). Subsequent research has shown a quite remarkable link between the subjective sense of where on the Borg scale a person feels and the specific changes that take place in the body in response to exercise. For example, when people report being at or around 17 on the Borg Scale they have also reached the tipping point at which the blood concentration of lactate, a by-product of exercise, starts to rise exponentially. It’s also the point at which breathing whilst exercising becomes more laboured - a point known as the ventilatory threshold. Sports laboratories the world over use the Borg scale as a very convenient indicator in support of the other tests that they do. The Borg scale is a simple, subjective, reliable and accurate measure of exertion.

Today, the evidence is beginning to emerge that the use of subjective measures like the Borg scale can be applied to other complex processes such as mental fatigue. Research into physical exercise has demonstrated that the thing that stops us exercising more is not so much physical fatigue as mental fatigue. It’s our perception of effort and the value of that effort that governs our ability to perform and not so much the physical fatigue experienced by our muscles. As with fatigue, it’s complex. Physical fatigue fuels mental fatigue and mental fatigue reduces our capacity for physical effort. If we can measure simply and subjectively the level of fatigue an athlete is experiencing, then we can better set the right intensity and volume of training. It appears that something like the Borg scale works well for assessing an athlete's capacity for work.

In other words, subjective measures or ‘gut feel’ can be an incredibly insightful way of expressing a complex array of psychophysiological responses in very simple terms. It’s a bit like the taste of chocolate or the aroma of coffee; we all know it when we taste it or smell it without needing to go into the complex mechanisms that allow us to sense ‘chocolate’ or ‘coffee’. All of this got me thinking about the use of subjective measures in the workplace. Decades ago I was confused when interviewing CEOs by the commonly received response that if a decision doesn’t feel right, whatever the evidence, they won’t take it. At the time I struggled with this. They had teams of people undertaking complex analysis of strategic options and yet a simple gut feel could overrule all the evidence. I realise now that the gut feel, just like the Borg Scale, is a reliable way of representing a very complex set of inputs simply and usefully. The CEO brought years of accumulated experience and insights to bear on the decision; the complexity of which would be next to impossible to articulate. I have noticed in my own work that if I feel unsure about something it probably means I need to spend more time thinking about the decision. If it feels wrong - it probably is. If I feel unsure - it means I still don’t know enough or that what I do know, is not sufficiently compelling or credible. Gut feel is a very good subjective guide to decision taking.

Qualitative and quantitative evidence is sometimes used as a weapon to force decisions through when not everyone involved is convinced. In the face of charts, spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks, gut feel seems like a poor response, and yet what we are learning from research into exertion and fatigue, is that it is one of the most useful tools in our armoury of tests. So let’s hear it for gut feel. My sense is we should take it far more seriously than we do.

Dominic Irvine © 2017 All rights asserted.


Thieves of Time

10th February 2017

Time is perishable. You cannot save time, only spend it. The key challenge is how you spend time not how you save it.

“I don’t have the time to do what you do.” The implication is that somehow I have more free time, a less demanding job, or fewer family commitments. I must have heard this comment said to me dozens of times. It’s nonsense. I’m married, have a family, and along with my colleagues, run a successful business. What makes me a bit unusual is on top of these things, in my late forties, I have also been lucky enough to become a record-breaking cyclist and author. I’d like to say it’s because I am talented, clever, genetically gifted and brilliant. But sadly, that’s also nonsense.

My two biggest revelations have been:

1) Extraordinary performance requires a huge amount of time and effort and a relentless drive to keep improving what you are doing. It doesn't matter whether you want to be a brilliant artist, musician, baker, investment banker or sports person, there is no substitute for graft. It’s harder than you think and takes longer than you might like.

2) Time is perishable. You cannot save time, only spend it. Think of it like a hotel room, if the hotel cannot sell the room that night, it cannot store that unused night up for a busier period - the revenue opportunity has gone and will never come back. The key challenge is how you spend time not how you save it. We cannot change the number of hours in the day, but we can do something with the hours that we have.

From my experience I have found five thieves of time and found some solutions that have helped me recover precious hours to spend on becoming a record breaker and author whilst still being a full-time working dad and husband.


It’s really easy to slump in front of the TV and start watching. There’s a good reason for this, a lot of very clever people have made some very engaging, entertaining and informative programmes. Once you get into a programme, stopping to go away and do something else is really hard.

1) Don’t start watching it in the first place. You can’t get engaged by a programme if you are not watching it. If you do watch a programme, choose to watch a specific programme, not just anything.
2) Make TV time a virtue, watch your favourite programmes whilst on the treadmill or an exercise bike or doing the ironing.
3) Put the TV in a separate room out of the main living area of the house (if this is possible). If you then want to watch it you have to go into the television room. It thus becomes a conscious decision to watch.

Social media

Keeping in contact with friends is great and social media is a wonderful tool for this. Tracking it all can become an addiction that both eats up time and reduces the quality of our thinking by reducing our focus on the task at hand.

1) Give yourself a few time slots in the day when you do check social media. Turn off the alerts.
2) Reduce the number of platforms you track - a bit more of a challenge as some people like some platforms better than others. But the more platforms the more time it takes.
3) Create some rules for yourself about your own posts - what would make them really engaging for other people? Help other people by making sure that if you do post something it is well worth the read, such that people look forward to hearing from you.


Those clever people who sit behind the search engines we use and the pages we browse, know how to target us with specific information likely to draw us into exploring more and more pages of content. The major challenge of the internet is curating content into usable, useful formats that provide the information we need. The rest is distracting noise that just gets in the way.

1) When opening your favourite browser, with your mug of coffee ready to be entertained, ask yourself “What question am I seeking to answer?” It might not seem much of a thing to do but it will force you to think about what is it you want to know - Are you exploring holiday options, If so, what aspect? Recommendations? Reviews? Flights? Be clear about what you are doing and it will help focus both your time and enable you make better choices of which sites to explore.

2) Decide on your time limit for browsing. I.e. allow yourself ten minutes, or half an hour and decide what you are going to do afterwards before you start browsing so you know why you need to move on.

3) Subscribe only to the number of sites / feeds you can realistically follow and read. There is nothing to stop you changing your subscriptions as your needs change. If you are seeking advice or insight, make sure the credentials of those providing it are adequate - do they really know what they are talking about or is it just a lot of vacuous opinion?


What a brilliant tool a smartphone is. It can do so much stuff, and as a result can be so distracting.

1) Turn off the alerts except on critical apps. Emails, by definition rarely require an instant response, whereas a text can sometimes be a little more urgent. Consider keeping the alerts on for critical people and off for everyone else.
2) Turn off all alerts at night. Sleep is so important to performance that it is not worth squandering on browsing.
3) Put it somewhere where it is just a bit inconvenient to use. If in bed, leave the phone in another room. If out and about, put it in your bag or pocket. If in the car, stick it in the glove compartment.

If you really want to be good at something, stop complaining you don’t have the time and take a good long hard look at the things you currently spend your time doing. Are they helping or hindering you in achieving your ambitions? From my experience, changing your habits around these five activities can liberate 10 to 20 hours a week. Just think what you could do with that time.

Dominic Irvine © 2017


Uncertainty needs judgement

19th January 2017

We want people to deliberate on what they learn and experience, considering what this information could mean.

First published in BDaily on 25 November 2016

I admit sometimes it can go wrong. It can hurt in so many ways. I was reminded of this as the bruise the size of a plum formed on my elbow and my battered knee swelled and my brand new jacket was shredded. It was a reminder that trial and error can sometimes mean just that, error, and in my case - pain.

But what’s the alternative - a carefully formed plan to iron out the issues and then test? I think not, despite my battered and bruised self. This is because recently I have witnessed the traditional process of trying to think it all through logically, and plan stymie performance again and again. The difficulty is the struggle to get beyond the planning phase wasting hours lost in its mortal embrace.

In business: A FTSE 100 company in desperate need of innovation as their core market declines rapidly and their ability to respond to digital opportunities is simply too slow and not relevant to its consumers. The culture in the business is ‘you get things right’. Fail and you’re fired. Success is security. As a result, the amount of planning, due diligence and preparation that goes into spending a small fortune on developing a new offering is immense. The outcome is successful by delivering some value, but the speed and resource spent in responding to the market demand means the gap to what the market leaders are doing is growing.

In the field: Billy is a keen cyclist and wants to improve his speed and his belief is that he needs to get more aerodynamic. His solution is to invest in a wind tunnel session and to hire a velodrome, however these are very expensive. Billy sees little point investing in a wind tunnel session until he has everything organised, including his bike setup, weight and clothing, in order to get the most value. This makes sense, except we’re now a year on from Billy discussing his original plan and he’s yet to organise a wind tunnel session because he has not yet managed to get everything else sorted.

It’s an uncertain world

The world is in a state of flux. The uncertainty over Brexit and the implications of Trump in the White House means a complexity of variables, that it is simply impossible to factor into a meaningful assessment as to what people and businesses should be doing. The number of assumptions involved in attempting to predict what will happen renders the outcome of nonsense. Thus, a detailed plan in such an environment creates an illusion of security where none exists. It also wastes masses of time and resources.

Instead, we need to focus on three things:

1) A continual investment in understanding – this is a long term approach to development that tasks people with being curious about the world around them and their specific areas of interest. We want people to deliberate on what they learn and experience, considering what this information could mean. This isn’t focused on specific research that underpins a proposal, but instead if you are interested in a subject, for example, neuroscience, then your digital news feed will offer you a daily selection of neuroscience articles, and you will read the one or two that catch your eye. Overtime you will build an understanding for example of what the subject tells us about why people do the things they do. It is your own curiosity that drives your learning. What is key is that you continually invest time in your understanding, as this feeds into the second point.

2) Exercise judgement – Your accumulated experiences combined with your depth of understanding from being curious forms the basis of your gut instinct as to what the right thing is to do. You will be in better position to blend the facts, the assumptions, inputs from friends and colleagues, to form a judgement on the action you wish to take. You recognise your decision for what it is – a judgement, an educated guess, but that’s ok, because of your approach to what you do, which is:

3) Trial and error – The action you take will be to start doing something and be ready to respond rapidly in the light of the feedback from the experience. Rather than a whole bunch of assumptions underpinning a plan, you have converted the world into a series of experiences that deliver real data helping to inform your judgement as to the next iteration. Trial and error is going to go wrong from time to time – so the trials need to be small enough and fast enough to demonstrate whether the idea works or not, in order for you to manage the risk. It’s like steering a boat, each trial is an adjustment on the tiller to ensure it is heading in the right direction. As confidence builds in the overall direction of the boat, you can go faster.

In an environment where complexity of the interacting variables, the ability to exercise judgement based on decades of accumulated insight and experience, combined with a willingness to try and probably get things wrong, can convert fear and uncertainty into energy and purpose.

The FTSE 100 company described above has the opportunity to turn things around, not least because it is staffed by very clever, capable people whose combined insight and knowledge will allow them to exercise immense judgement – if only they were allowed to experiment a little without fear of losing their job. Similarly, Billy’s an experienced cyclist who’s thought long and hard about how to go faster and has read lots around the topic. He could keep waiting until everything is just right before outlaying the expensive wind tunnel test time, or he could head out onto the roads this weekend and start trying some of the things that will make a difference, using nothing more than kit he already has. He can start running some simple tests. Will it be as effective as a wind tunnel? No. But the difference is by the end of the weekend he will already have some data to think about, whereas at present he has nothing.

Trial and error is not without cost, as I have found out on many occasions, but there is value in the insights it delivers. In case you think this is nonsense, be curious, read up about all the amazing transformative innovations through the ages and you will find they emerged from a vast amount of trial and error and often a bit of luck. If it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

Dominic Irvine © 2016 All rights asserted


The Jingle Jangle of Resilience

16th September 2016

Mental toughness and resilience are the latest buzzwords that are sweeping corporate life. Requests are coming in thick and fast to help managers be more resilient – but what exactly do they mean by resilient? Are all people using the term in the same way, to mean the same thing?

First published in The Huffington Post on 9 September 2016

In need of finding a public convenience, the driver rolled slowly along the road scanning the surrounding buildings. As he passed the entrance to a shopping village, he swung the car hard to the right, failing to see the fast moving racing cyclist who was mid overtake. Despite the rider’s best efforts to take the turn the car had forced upon him, he failed and crashed into the side of the car and was thrown to the ground.

The intense pain experienced prevented any form of response to the questions posed by the worried bystanders. A few minutes later, he hobbled to the side of the road to take stock of his injuries and then to examine his bike to see if it was rideable. His intention, if at all possible, was to keep going, but the bike was wrecked.

Meanwhile, the driver was in a state of shock and close to tears. Recognising this, the driver sat in his car and poured himself a cup of tea from his flask. The incident had terrified him and he chose to avoid driving through towns for the rest of his journey. After a day on crutches, the cyclist, having sustained significant bruising and a chipped pelvis, was back out on the road training. The driver continued to avoid towns.

Was the behaviour of the rider an example of mental toughness? Resilience? The ability to cope? Or normal behaviour? Was the behaviour of the driver an illustration of mental sensitivity? An inability to cope? Or normal behaviour?

Jingle jangle

Mental toughness, resilience, coping are all examples of the ‘jingle jangle fallacy’. This delightful concept, in which authors Daniel Gucciardi and Sandy Gordon combined insights from two writers at the turn of the last century, describes commonly used words that may mean different things to different people (jingle) and the use of different terms to mean the same thing (jangle). Mental toughness and resilience are the latest buzzwords that are sweeping corporate life. Requests are coming in thick and fast to help managers be more resilient – but what exactly do they mean by resilient? Are all people using the term in the same way, to mean the same thing?

Don’t get your hopes up by turning to the academic literature. Excellent though much of it is, there is still much work to be done to understand the concepts. For example, consider mental toughness: how much of it is situation specific? To what extent is it transferrable? Does it differ for high achievers compared to the rest of us mere mortals? How do you measure it? Are some people predisposed to be mentally tougher than others? Can you be mentally tough and mentally sensitive or are they at opposite ends of the spectrum? Does it change as you grow older? Until researchers figure all this out, it’s useful to have a rough frame of reference.


Coping seems to be about adjusting the way you respond to deal with those really demanding stressful circumstances. The level of stress experienced by one individual may differ to another. Situations that have little or no stress can be managed, whereas situations that are stressful require you to cope. Thus, for one person a situation may require management, whereas for another it may require them to cope.


Resilience is about coping over an extended period of time. Thus, if you were organising a ‘one-off’ event you might have to cope, whereas if you were having to work through a merger or takeover that lasted many months, then it would require resilience.

Mental toughness

Mental toughness is relative. We can’t all be mentally tough. Toughness is towards one end of a continuum. Someone who is mentally tough can cope better than others when faced with the same level of stress. Someone who is mentally tough is less likely to deploy avoidance as a coping technique. Instead they are more likely to find ways of coping that deal with the issue head on, for example, finding ways of coping with sleep deprivation, as well as avoiding it in the first place.

So what of our cyclist and driver? The cyclist was coping with the stress and could be described as mentally tough in that he was interested in working out how to keep going despite the physical and mental stress he was experiencing. The driver was coping too. He took time out to gather his thoughts. He poured himself some tea and for the rest of the day deployed an avoidance coping strategy, by staying away from towns where the same thing might happen again. The clue to the resilience of the cyclist was his decision to go riding so soon after the incident.


What is unclear from the literature is how much of the mental toughness and resilience demonstrated by the cyclist is transferrable to the workplace. Just because he is a resilient cyclist does not necessarily mean he will be a resilient manager. Which elements and how much depend on so many variables, such as the ability to recognise similar circumstances in the workplace and insight into how the lessons from cycling can be applied to work. It is by no means a given.

Coping, resilience and mental toughness are interlinked concepts. It is a complex amalgam of experience, circumstance, learned behaviour and nature. Organisations thinking about developing the resilience of their people need to be clear on what it is precisely that they want people to develop. Is it the ability to cope over extended periods of time? Does that ability to cope require mental toughness? Should people be developed to deal with a specific situation or is the aim to equip them with a life skill?

In the absence of clarity from the literature, you will need to define what you mean by the terms you use and be consistent. In so doing, you will avoid the jingle jangle nonsense that dominates resilience.

Dominic Irvine © 2016 All rights asserted.

If you would like to read about another event demonstrating resilience read here


In control in spite of the facts

27th July 2016

In the past, facts provided a comfort blanket that created a sense of control. The richness of data available today means you can pretty much have any fact you want to support your chosen position.

First published in The Huffington Post on 25 July 2016

The illusion of facts

If there is one thing I have learned following Brexit, it is the meaningless value of “facts”. They provide an illusion of credibility that rarely exists in reality. Brexit was a brilliant illustration, a wealth of facts and a poverty of reason. Whether we remained in the EU or decided to leave, it would result in a complex interplay of variables of which the impact couldn’t possibly be understood or fully anticipated. The decision required judgement. And yet, both sides asked us to believe a carefully curated set of facts offering a breathtaking simplistic perspective on what the future would behold. We see the same in business.

Companies are expected to present a future of great certainty that satisfies the markets as to the integrity of their strategic plan. This is because, “We’re going to have a go at growing the business by doing ‘X’, but it’s difficult to be certain it will work because there are so many factors involved such as competitors, politics, other markets, competing products, general economic stability, changing commodity prices etc.” When things don’t go as planned, the leadership of the business is torn apart as if somehow “they should have known”. It’s nonsense. They played their hand of cards as best they could, but others either had a better hand or were better players.

Similarly, the same phenomenon can be observed within organisations. Learning programmes are evaluated using a numerical scale that gives an average value that is treated as a fact as to how good the programme was. It’s just a number. It doesn’t tell you how willing or unwilling the delegates were, nor the broader context. It might have been a stifling hot day in a room without air conditioning, trying to cover a technical, dry topic. Factually it’s correct, but to rely on the number alone is nonsense.

It’s about judgement

What we all end up doing to a lesser or greater extent is interpreting the evidence from today and combining this with gut feel, prior experience and an insight into how people behave to predict the future. We pick up a vibe or a feeling for what is the right thing to do. When someone says “I’m a bit worried about Johnny, I think he might be going to….” They do so based on knowing what Johnny has done in the past, the context in which Johnny is operating and a sense of how someone like Johnny might behave in those circumstances. The gut feel that results gives them cause for worry.
A great sports coach will look at the numeric data such as power output and then look at the context. Training when tired with lots of pressure at work might be a better explanation of why the numbers are lower than expected rather than the athlete not trying.

Feeling in control

Judgement is a messy, unsatisfactory process but it gives us a sense of control, and control, more than anything else is what we all need to feel. As Will Davies, from the Political Economy Research Centre, so ably demonstrated, it was this ‘taking back control’ that proved so effective for the ‘leave’ campaign. He pointed out that it was not so much the facts that mattered but the feeling it gave people about owning their future. With so many competing facts, there was no certainty about the future. People had to make a judgement. Being in control was judged to be a good place to be. And that’s no surprise. Experience has shown us that if you want to stymie change, create a situation where people feel out of control. They will find all sorts of reasons not to do what you want. These reasons on the face of it make perfect sense, but really their purpose is to stall, to prevaricate until people feel they understand what’s happening. Once in control, they are then willing to pick up speed and do what you want, when you want it done. The trouble is, as Will Davies pointed out, the most disaffected in our communities felt out of control (despite being the greatest beneficiaries of EU money).

Nothing demonstrates this need for control more than a colleague whose relative was made redundant. Decades of his life given to the firm were of absolutely no relevance when it came to the crunch. He was, like so many others, an expendable commodity in the eyes of the business leaders. Without certainty over his future, his sense of not being in control fuelled his anger, frustration and disbelief in equal measure. For many, the EU was something that was done to them rather than something they felt part of.

Judging the future

In the past, facts provided a comfort blanket that created a sense of control. The richness of data available today means you can pretty much have any fact you want to support your chosen position. It’s the successful deployment of PR that will determine whether your fact becomes the accepted wisdom over those of others. This is but a temporary phase. Firstly, the future rests with helping people judge what feels right based on the vast amount of available data. What feels right is that which enables them to feel in control. As a client once said to me, I don’t mind if the ambush is going to come from somewhere as long as I know that’s the case. It’s when you think you will be ambushed ahead and it comes from behind that frustrates you. Secondly, the real lesson from Brexit is do it with people don’t do it to people. Working with the EU is something we will need to do together and not have done to us.

Dominic Irvine & Johanna Clarie © 2016 All rights asserted.


Wash your hands of behaviour change

6th June 2016

It has been the role of The Board supported by organisational design and HR that sets the behavioural tone for how people behave in business. I think this is about to change

First published in Business Daily and The Huffington Post on 2 June 2016

Never has ‘to wash your hands’ of the problem been so apt. The clues to organisational behaviour can be found in the humble paper towel.

We know context drives behaviour. Zimbardo’s infamous Stamford Prison experiments and Millgram’s obedience to authority research established this. Today we control people’s behaviour in business by the way we measure their performance and through organisational culture. Generally speaking, it has been the role of The Board supported by organisational design and HR that sets the behavioural tone for how people behave in business. I think this is about to change.

Technologies are converging in ways that I feel will deliver surprising opportunities for how organisations encourage people to do what’s required. Things like Nike’s link with Apple to create a community of physically active people has shown how by making the process into a game and by building a community, people can be encouraged to do more sport. The key seems to be ease of use, personalisation, a sense of community and the creation of exciting and challenging goals.

Providers of paper towels, lifts and cleaning products have realised that by the introduction of sensors in things like paper towel dispensers, they can optimise facilities management targeting resources when and where needed. The ubiquitous choice of three buttons with happy face, neutral face and sad face to denote your satisfaction with the state of the facilities is providing an understanding of when is something ‘clean enough’. Sensors that can detect spillages are enabling better flows of people around buildings, reducing risk of mishap. Software in lifts can respond to demand and channel people into the right lift to optimise the sequence to move people as effectively as possible. Smartphones can track where you are, what you are looking at, for how long, what you can hear, and, if linked to other devices can provide biometric feedback on the state of your health.

When you put this together, you can imagine a work environment where an employee can be rewarded for getting enough sleep, doing enough exercise (choosing to take the stairs rather than the lift), personal hygiene at work, their ability to manage their stress - not by some big brother monitoring, but because the whole process is made into a game. Teams work together to achieve a high score based on whatever an organisation chooses to value. For example, in a food preparation factory where hand hygiene is critical to minimise the risk of contamination, washing hands could be tracked at a personal level with high scores for the cleanest teams. Organisations with very highly paid employees such as fund managers, where in a very real sense personal performance is critical to business success, could reward the way such people look after their well being. In short, the way in which they maintain themselves as ‘fit for work’. We know that ‘presenteeism’ where people come to work unable to do their job properly due to ill health or other factors costs business more than ‘absenteeism’. Helping monitor the factors that contribute to ‘presenteeism’ is a prime role for such use of technology.

Working out how to reward the right behaviours is something for HR to think through. Ultimately, people need to be engaged because they see it as a personal benefit to them, as well as the business. It needs to be ‘app’ropriate, i.e. the appropriate ‘app’ for the circumstance and where employees have been properly engaged in the process.

Managing organisational behaviour will become the realm of whoever controls the software that runs the system. Such is the power of facilities management software when, through ‘the internet of things’ it can track usage and user experience on a site by site, washroom, by washroom basis that it has de-commodified products such as hand towels. If the software is powerful enough and delivers enough value, the cost of the towels is very much a secondary issue. Finance departments will be able to be far more active in driving business strategy as they will be able take this rich feed of data and input on what to change to deliver the required return.

The challenge is to take the way in which people behave and design applications that integrate these different sources of data to drive the behaviours essential for organisational success. Technology in and of itself won’t make a blind bit of difference. It’s the convergence of thinking of technologists, neurologists, psychologists and sociologists, economists and finance experts that will afford the next step change in business performance.

So next time you are washing your hands, think on. You are at the cutting edge of behaviour change.

Dominic Irvine © 2016 All rights asserted

"leading practice is about being at the forefront of development ..."

"Behaviour change works best through experiencing the effectiveness of different behaviours."