8 human impediments to genuine business renewal.

8 human impediments to genuine business renewal.

Why are these  changes so hard?

Why can they not see that continuing on will be a disaster?

These are two questions that I often ask myself working with businesses in distress, or often just underperforming, and looking for some sort of renewal.

Neither is possible without change, as the old saying goes ‘do what you have always done and you will get what you always got’

Pretty common sense, so why is it so hard?

Over the 40 years of working with businesses that need change, first as one of those at the bottom of the tree wondering why the monkeys at the top could not see it, and for the last 22 as an adviser, I have seen a lot.

The first thing that seems prevalent is that change only happens with a significant catalyst of some sort. Usually it is the person at the top who finally commits to the changes, often someone new, who is prepared to push very hard, and to break the shape of the status quo, and reshape a new one.

Then they have to address the very human emotions that combined created the situation in the first place.

Uncertainty. Human beings hate uncertainty, it is usually more corrosive and more damaging than staying in a known state of misery. Collectively, we will do almost anything to feel safe and secure by removing uncertainty.

Saying ‘No’ is easier. Following on from the avoidance of uncertainty, often agreeing to something new or even slightly different enables some level of uncertainty, so the easiest thing is to just say ‘No’. This is why the first sale is always the hardest, you have to get over that psychological predisposition to stay with what is known and understood. As the other  old saying goes, ‘nobody ever got fired for buying IBM’

Loss of control. We like to feel we are in control, even if it is just our immediate environment, and the prospect of losing any of that control is painful. In a world where things are changing around us at apparent logarithmic speed, this loss of control of personal space can be alarming.

Loss of face. Losing face in some cultures is a horrendous possibility to face. Even in those cultures where it does not matter so much, we all want to be liked, to be respected, and by conceding change is necessary, conceding we may have even just condoned sub optimal  practises carries personal risk.

Competence.   Again, conceding that what has gone before is not good enough calls into question the competence of those who allowed it to continue, and in some cases, created the circumstances in the first place, and very few of us are happy to be labelled incompetent.

Change is hard work. Hard work is not just keeping your head down for an extended period, it is also the work of being prepared to suffer the stress of change. Much easier to avoid it, particularly as in most situations where change is necessary, everyone is already working hard, even if it is to fight all the stupid fires, so there is no time left to fix the causes of the fires.

Skeletons reappear. Most of us have a few skeletons buried somewhere, and while all sails on undisturbed, they will remain hidden, but once things get turned over, there is a risk of the ghosts of past stumbles being revealed to a whole new group.

The harsh reality. Sometimes all of the above may be in play, but the biggest link to the status quo is that in a change, people know they will be left behind. In a world of rapid technical changes, this infests many organisations as they set about dealing with the implementation of technology and productivity tools generally.

In my experience, there is no easy way to generate change, and make the new reality stick.

You can either do it progressively, piece by piece which requires leadership, persistence, and a preparedness to communicate, communicate, and communicate some more about the reasons change is necessary.

Alternatively, you can employ the ‘baseball bat method’, and force the change. This is painful, and leaves a lasting scar on not just those who get ‘batted’ but on the survivors as well.  Whichever course you choose, be committed, as the status quo is the most elastic and resilient thing in the known universe, hugely resistant to change and able to recover from a succession of near death experiences.

Change is absolutely inevitable, the very best thing you can do is embrace it.

How many baristas do we need to drive growth?

How many baristas do we need to drive growth?

Coffee shops seem to be the harbinger of our growth patterns, they are popping up everywhere, staffed by baristas (has that become a profession?) with cutting edge hairstyles and tattoos. They all add to the GDP numbers in some tiny way, but are they all we need?

When you look at economic history, sustainable growth always comes from manufacturing, not services. Ok, some comes from agriculture, as we all need to eat, and I guess someone has to grow, transport and roast the coffee, but it pales into insignificance beside the society changing impacts of manufacturing.

When growth happens, it is as a result of manufacturing, and the changes that manufacturing drive.

Look at the culture changing manufacturing innovations of the past: The printing press,  steam engine, and the first wave of automation in the 70’s.

Now we are moving inexorably into the next wave, of  Virtual Reality, Machine learning, advanced robotics, additive manufacturing, and the changes will be profound.

In the past, we have always looked for productivity by building scale. In a manufacturing operation, the more you make of any one item, the longer the runs, the lower the marginal costs.

However, we are now approaching the point where we can create the next big change, shape the major technologies emerging.

Manufacturing robots that can be programmed to do the tasks that are not just the repetitive tasks they currently do, but the robots will start to learn, it is happening now

The next step is not just better smart products, but customised specialist products that combine the abilities of robots and additive manufacturing  to immediately create the products that you need.

The outcomes are that factories will move back closer to markets, they will be smaller more flexible and reduce the time frames of the chain, the products will be much cleaner and better for the environment, and will create growth in areas hard to imagine as I sit here in the middle of 2017

This does not happen by rote, we need to teach the new stuff at the universities, and importantly we need to teach these kids how to think critically and analytically so they have the intellectual tools to adapt, and we need to engage with the changes to ensure they are accommodated within our economies

The new manufacturing revolution will drive manufacturing and  consumption back to the smaller regions. China will become as expensive as Australia in 10 years, and the trade patterns will follow and I suspect  will accelerate regionally with lower barriers and shorter transit times,  rather than being international

We are reaching the point where increasingly challenging manual tasks can be taken by robots. This delivers a potentially huge productivity increase, but it also delivers one of the key questions of the 21st century: what happens to those displaced? Particularly skilled workers in their middle and later lives when retraining might sound nice, but has proven to be a mirage despite  the billions thrown at it.

However, there is a confluence of hardware and software happening at Moore’s law speed. The take-off will vary by sector and by economy, logically it will occur first in high cost developed nations and filter down

This will lead to a productivity surge, further reducing the disparity of costs between economies, leading to a change in the ‘offshoring’ that has occurred. It will no longer  be better to outsource  to China, outsource it to the bloke down the road, where when  necessary you can get our hands around his throat, and/or collaborate in a meaningful way that is very hard across borders, languages and cultures.

So how do you prepare for this?

Understand and be engaged with the developments occurring in your and adjacent domains globally. This is a big call, but putting aside some time for the reading and understanding of the relevant material by authorities and the those on the leading edge can make it a highly productive expenditure of that most valuable resource.

Normally I dislike the term benchmarking, as it leads to copying processes and programs that worked for others, but by the time you have implemented, usually less than 100% effectively, the trend setters have moved on so you are always playing catch up. However, in the case of keeping current, recognising the things the leaders are doing is pretty important, and modelling the best bits that suit  you can be very worthwhile.

Prepare your stakeholders, particularly the employees for the  changes to come. There  is nothing  so unsettling as uncertainty itself so my advice is to communicate extensively, encourage feedback and comment as well as input to the conversations.

Prepare the organisation for the changes that will evolve in the business models and supporting areas such as capital and human capability development.

As a final note, those that will survive do not have the luxury of time. The  average life of enterprises is shortening annually, it is really a commercial Darwinian process, and incumbents who are not willing or able to adapt quickly will go the way of ‘Lonesome George,’ the last of the Pinta island sub species of Galapagos turtles that dies almost on camera with David Attenborough.


Richard Nixon casts a long shadow

Richard Nixon casts a long shadow


In 1974 when Richard Nixon delivered his resignation speech, just before the inevitable impeachment, I was sitting in the home of Harvard Professor  Jim Hagler just outside Boston.

I was seeing first hand the implosion of a presidency from the perspective of a 22 year old Aussie who had by that time a pretty good education, but absolutely no experience beyond the surf, meat pies, beer  and university shenanigans that had been my life.

And yet, here I was seeing the anguish of Americans as they struggled with a presidency that had failed on the two counts that really mattered to them.

  • The personal qualities that it took an individual to be their President,
  • The  rule of law and order, let alone the constitution in which so many Americans are invested in a way alien to Australians.

The world has changed somewhat since 1974, but our expectations and hopes of leadership have not, despite the evidence of  the past 43 years, in both America and here in Australia.

However we still fervently hope and believe that our leaders are worthy, and when they prove not to be, we feel betrayed.

Trump has sowed the seeds of his own destruction via twitter.

He seems to think that behaviour that drives ratings as the host of a shock jock TV show is transferable to the office of the President.

Thankfully, it appears there is a difference after all.

Part of Trump’s appeal was I suspect that he was able to sell himself as a successful business leader and entrepreneur. Those skills that made him good at business would suit him to run the biggest enterprise in the country, the government, and bring some accountability to the bloated bureaucratic processes, without any of the baggage that comes with political and government experience .

Has not gone so well so far!.

If Congress was acting as a company board, as they should be, after all they are the representatives of the shareholders, they would be insisting on his resignation about now. The current rumblings of  an impeachment that will never happen because you need a 2/3 majority in the senate to ‘convict’  would be replaced in corporate life by one of those terminal conversations so loved on the ‘Apprentice’ TV show.

No CEO  of a competently run public company could survive the apparent conflicts of interest, loose mouth, inconsistent and shambolic behaviour, clear contradictions of positions taken almost in the same sentence, and outright lies that have characterised the first 4 months of the Trump white house.

We are better off here in Australia, but perhaps only just.

The spectacle during the week of various non entity politicians, along with several of some political status personally bagging Ken Henry as chairman of NAB when he dared to disagree with them, and articulate what any sensible person already knew, is a disgrace.

The treasurer a few weeks ago was encouraging political debate, encouraging the expression of views, and the first time it happens afterwards he and his colleagues go immediately for the language of personal vilification, ignoring the arguments.

On balance, I prefer it here, but what would we give for some genuine leadership without the shadow of self interest, power for its own sake, and sheer bloody-minded hubris?

5 part headline  template to write killer headlines that always attract attention.

5 part headline  template to write killer headlines that always attract attention.

The ability of a headline to attract attention, then lead the reader deeper into the content is the make or break skill of copywriting, and even in this world of video, the ability to write a headline remains the single most important skill in effective communication.

No matter how good the body-copy, without a great headline, it will not get read.

Pretty much all my clients are small and medium businesses, and run pretty lean. As a result they often write their own copy then wonder why it does not work. Like many skills, the individual differences between a professional and an OK amateur can seem small and hardly worth the money, but they usually add up in the end to a huge difference in the outcome.

So here is a headline template that always works.

Use combinations of these elements:

  • Number
  • Trigger word
  • Adjective
  • Keyword
  • Promise

Let’s say the subject is a training seminar about managing cash flow.

Pretty dry stuff but of vital importance to any business,  and make or break for small business.

The easy and obvious headlines may be:

‘How to manage your cash flow’ or

‘Cash flow basics for beginners’

However, if you apply the headline template you might come up with something like:

‘7 simple techniques to apply cash flow to your business to make more profit’

Let’s break it down.

Number: 7. For reasons I do  not fully understand, but rooted in psychology, odd numbers  work best, and lists in headlines work as they promise to deliver instant gratification.

Trigger words: Simple. Words like Free, Secret, Undiscovered, Expert, all offer incentive to open

Adjective: Manage. Adjectives are ‘action ‘ words, they reflect and prompt activity.

Keyword: Cash Flow. Cash flow is the guts of the post, and is the word that will deliver the search engine enquiries that are relevant to the post.

Promise: ‘Make more profit’ well, who in business does not want more profit?

Alternatively, your  headline might be:

‘Join us to learn the 7 secrets to greater profits through managing cash flow’

I do not know which would be the better headline, I am not a professional copywriter, but I am pretty sure both would work well.

An option if you were about to make an investment, such as in a public seminar series, and generating a lot of interest rather than just capturing eyeballs on a blog post was financially critical, you could set about testing them by applying an  A/B test which is pretty easy on social media platforms. Then you could use the better one, or perhaps do some more ‘wordsmithing’ to improve one or both for further testing.

As evidence of how the template works, the headline that caught you in the first place is the third iteration of the first one I scratched down, which was :’Killer headline template that always works’. Having written the post to articulate for you a template that really works, I realised I had better take my own advice.

You tell me if it worked.


3 great strategies to get good at anything

3 great strategies to get good at anything

Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hours’ of practise to become expert has worked its way into the lexicon, for good reason. However, is it always so?

I watched my father practise golf after he took it up in his 30’s, endlessly, while never getting his handicap below 18. He had been a very good tennis player, and all round social athlete, so with the practise should have been a scratch golfer.

Why was he not?

On reflection, two reasons: He  simply did not have whatever natural talent it requires to be a scratch golfer, however many hours he practised, and the second and I think way more important reason, his practise was not real practise as would be required to be a scratch golfer.

He practised alone, without feedback beyond seeing where the ball he just hit went. Even the best golfers in the world have coaches, who give them feedback, look for the tiny places to improve, and polish the technique relentlessly. By contrast, Dad practised alone, because he enjoyed it.

He might have put in the hours, but I suggest the hours were not tough enough.

Thinking back on 40 years of managing, consulting and coaching, there are a number of things that I might have advised dad to do, were he still around.

  • Identify what ‘expert’ really means. Any endeavour has boundaries, inhabited by the few who are just better than anyone else. Roger Federer comes to mind. Learn from what they do, break it down into the tiny items that add up to being a superior performance, and know what that performance looks like.
  • Seek out areas of weakness to fix. Performance is always uneven, some components are better than others. The tendency is to double down on what you do well, which is always my advice on strategy, but improving the poorer bits while polishing the peak bits gives a stronger base, and a more reliable standard of performance. It usually takes an outside view to identify these areas, a coach, which is why Federer has one, as does every athlete at the top of their game. A coach demands maximum effort in practise, and highlights areas for improvement. Dad did not have a coach, just Mum begging him to do stuff around the house instead of hitting a golf ball.
  • Practise to a program. Putting in the hours when you have them spare is different from exercising the discipline necessary to make the choice to practise instead of doing something else, and then to practise with intent. Having intent means there is an objective, clear steps towards the objective, and performance measures to ensure that the practise is in fact improving the performance, rather than embedding those tiny habits that tend to creep in and inhibit performance.

None of this is any different to what happens in the businesses to whom I consult.

Generally they are small to medium sized manufacturing businesses whose bread and butter is in doing a range of things really well, and then being sufficiently confident to chip their way out of the rough when they find themselves in it, indeed being prepared to risk the rough in order to have a shot at that corporate birdie.