Finding the sweet spot of organisational cadence.

Finding the sweet spot of organisational cadence.

Last week I watched for the first time in many years Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘Full Metal Jacket’.

Amongst the many parts of the movie that struck me, were the scenes in the first half where Gunnery Sargent Hartman is calling cadence as the platoon marches and runs.

These scenes sparked a complex series of thoughts about the nature of co-operation, collaboration and authority as it drives performance in our enterprises.

I often talk about ‘Rhythm and Flow’ as being an essential ingredient of any successful organisation, it is one of the three foundations of a successful enterprise I look for when conducting a StrategyAudit.  There has to be a rhythm to the operations in anything bigger than the corner shop, a series of rhythms that together make up the flow that drives the strategic development at the top, down to the daily tactical implementation with customers. In addition every process has a flow, it begins, moves through a set of stages to completion. The less interruption to  the natural flow  the better the process will work, the more efficient it will be.

All manner of things get in the way, and even when working really well, at 100% efficiency, some processes will not be optimised. You can get a flawed process working as well as it can work, peak efficiency,  that does not make it a good or optimised process.

Processes evolved to enable us to scale operations, to do the things that needed doing repeatedly, the same way every time, reducing errors, time taken, and  effectively ‘dumbing down’ the process. While the evolution started the first time someone made any sort of automated tool, it took off when Frederick Winslow Taylor  started developing and testing  his ideas while running the Midvale Steel works in Pennsylvania, first published as a paper called ‘A piece rate system‘  in 1896.

Organizations have almost by definition, a set of procedures, and varying levels of authority, that when bundled together become labelled as a ‘Bureaucracy’. The evolution of bureaucratic processes is what has enabled the scaling of businesses over the last 100 years. Things get organized into silos where there are specialists who can solve problems from the routine to the strategic, and pass the knowledge on in a consistent manner. As a result even the most efficient process had a cycle time as it moved from one level of an organisation up for decision, then back down for execution. That works until the time required to respond to the challenge/problem/opportunity is less than the bureaucratic cycle time, or something out of the ordinary happens, something that has not been prepared for. Then you get the process equivalent of waste, as the opportunities pass by, and problems overwhelm.

This is a reflection of the speed of operation required by the operating environment, in most cases, driven by customers. In Lean thinking terms, is called ‘Takt Time’ which is effectively the cycle time of demand in the market.

Cycle time and Takt time are two ideas from manufacturing whose time has come in organizational development.

The environment in which we operate has been disrupted absolutely by the march of technology. Speed is increasingly the difference between success and failure, so enterprises must find ways to adjust their operating cycle time to less than the decreasing Takt time demanded by the market place.

Optimising a bureaucratic process will not be enough in the future, as it still requires deference to the levels of authority, rather than enabling those at the coal face to use their initiative and intimate knowledge of the situation to be able to play what is in front of them.

At the core you have this paradox of organisation structures being vertical, organised into functional silos for efficiency, while the processes that serve the customer being horizontal and cross functional. As the requirement  for speed increases, the time a vertical structure takes to respond becomes increasingly less satisfactory to customers, they move onto those who meet their time requirements, as they do not give a fig about your  approval processes, they add no value at all to them, but they do suck value away.

The successful  organisations of the future will be more ‘biological’ in nature, with the power to respond in Takt time devolved to the fringes where the intersection with the competitive environment occurs on a daily basis. The challenges of this change to the current management orthodoxy will make most very uncomfortable indeed, and therein lies opportunity for those who can reverse the location of tactical decision making, and put it at the ‘front lines’, where it should  be.





Googles 5 foundations for a successful team.

Googles 5 foundations for a successful team.

Teamwork, collaboration, and all sorts of clichés relate to the workings of teams.

Over the last 25 years they have invaded and become pervasive in our workplaces, but most often they do not deliver the hoped for outcomes.

On Saturday night, those of us who watch Rugby League saw a display of teamwork we should remember. A busted, down on personnel Cowboys team coming from an unwinnable position on the seasons table, beat the favourites who were full of enthusiasm, confidence and with a full playing roster, to get a shot at the title.

How does that happen?

We all mumble about ‘team culture’ without knowing really what it is, and where it comes from, while working to find it for our teams.

Google uses teams as the core of their operational and development processes, they have not become one of the most successful companies in history by getting it wrong. However, like the rest of us, they did not really know what made a team successful, so set out to find out by deploying their formidable skills and resources to answer the question.

The answer they came up with surprised them, although it should not have, as once seeing it written, it is pretty obvious.

  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  • Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

For someone like me who has worked with teams for a very long time, the response on seeing this list, reproduced in summary above, is ‘of course’. However, when constructing teams, how often do we take the easy way, grab who is available, allocate a superstar and expect them to carry the load. Meantime we do not make sure the dynamics of the group are the focus of the construction, give insufficient consideration to the mix of skills and personalities, and then be less than specific about the outcomes required, the plans to get there, available resources for the team to use, and the time frames required.

I am not even a great fan of Rugby League, but the quality of the Cowboys team on Saturday night would indicate that a test along the lines of Googles 5 headline requirements would return a very high score.

It will be fascinating to watch the grand final next week against the Melbourne Storm, a team that has made the culture of the place a core of its success since entering the league in 1998.


Photo credit: AAP Dan Himbrechts


How SME’s can get invaluable feedback, insight and coaching, almost for free.

How SME’s can get invaluable feedback, insight and coaching, almost for free.

As kids, most of us told each other our secrets when we were in a safe place. In the tree-house,  in a tent in the backyard, under the house, wherever it was, we tended to open up with our fears and dreams.

It felt good to confide, to open up and get the responses from those we trusted.

As adults, being able to open up like this seems both confronting and dangerous to self image.

As business owners, it is even harder, we are never sure who will find out about our deepest commercial secrets. We also know and find really hard, is to ‘work on our business not just in it’. The most common reason is used is  ‘where do I get the time? The only answer is to make it somehow, and the rewards will be substantial.

Large enterprises have a number of options to be a part of various round tables that set out to re-create this safety felt in the tree house. Operations like The Executive Connection (TEC) do it well, putting together groups of business leaders from non competitive businesses into a regular moderated forum in which they can be coached, and encouraged by their peers and learn from each other. It requires a commitment of time as well as the finances, to both attend the meetings and to do the ‘homework’ that emerges, but I have seen spectacular results from the commitment.

For the owners of SME’s the financial and time commitment to be a part of these sort of groups is substantial, and most do not take the step. However, increasingly there are options emerging as a part of local networks of like minded and non competitive owners meeting regularly to share experiences. The value that can come from the advice and support of such a group is substantial and should not be missed.

The usual rules for constructive conversation apply. Everyone needs to be given a voice by the moderator, and there needs to be a depth to the conversation that enables both deep analysis by the group, and by its very nature, builds trust. ‘They would not have said that unless they trusted me’ and trust recieved, begets trust given

My thanks to Scott Adams for the Dilbert cartoon.


7 sources of great ideas

7 sources of great ideas

Where do these great ideas come from, why are some organisations just more innovative than others?.

I have pondered those questions for years as a corporate executive and as a consultant, and it seems to me that there are several points that are common in the situations I have seen that are really innovative, and contrasted in the rest because they simply lack some of these characteristics.

It is also the fact that each of the following ‘conditions’ is a result of that most elusive of management skills: leadership.

Genetics. Some people are just smarter than others, and smart people tend to have more and better ideas. They are also better at driving their ideas through an organisation. If you want an innovative organisation, it seems  that hiring smart people and giving them some freedom is a pretty good place to start.

Outliers. Malcom Gladwell coined this term, meaning those who do not conform, seek to be on the outside, be different, experience things out of the ordinary. Those people are more likely to see and be interested on something different than someone who is comfortable with the status quo.

Intersections. Ideas come from all sorts of places, most often from the intersection of several factors that create some sort of smash, an accident if you like. Rarely are great ideas just accidental. They come out of consideration, often subconscious, of the factors creating friction in a system, and by removing the friction, a new freedom is exposed. You are more likely to see an accident at the corner of Parramatta road and Frederick Street in Ashfield than you are in a country road outside Dubbo. In Ashfield there are a multiple sets of options open to the traffic, some of it entirely unpredictable. If you want to see an accident, that is clearly the better place to be.

Culture. I am a great fan of the scientific method being applied to management and particularly marketing thinking. Create a hypothesis, and test it  see what worked, and what did not, improve the hypothesis and retest. Rinse and repeat. It really works, and when you empower people to have a go, and give them the resources to do so, wonderful things can happen. I have previously described it as a loose/tight management culture. Be very tight about the objectives and behaviour parameters, but loose with the detail of how it is achieved. A note of caution however. The recent recognition that it is all right, indeed good, to fail, seems to be leading us to a point where failure is regarded as a badge of honour for its own sake, and due diligence is becoming less important. Very dangerous this, the right to fail, must be accompanied by the determination to learn from the failure, and great diligence in the construction of the hypotheses and the manner of their testing.

Collaboration. The cliché ‘two brains are better than one’ is a cliché for a reason, it is true. Collaboration will become one of the defining characteristics of success in the 21st century.

Great questions. What if, what now, how about, so what, have you tried… The ability for those in a business to ask questions and not be seen as an inquisitor, and those being questioned seeing the questions as opportunities to learn is a huge factor in the successfully innovating enterprises I have seen. Facilitating a clients innovation  workshop some time ago, the MD started by stating his view, then asking what everyone else thought. Needless to say all participants agreed with him, except for me, and they are no longer a client.

Customers. Current, past, potential, all are sources of ideas, as they are the ones who have the problems you are seeking to add value by solving. Makes sense to ask them.

As a final note, having a great idea is only the first step. The really hard bit is creating the pathways to do something of lasting value with it that adds to the longevity and prosperity of the enterprise.

My thanks once again too Hugh McLeod for the illustration.

The 4 dimensions of project planning.

The 4 dimensions of project planning.

Lessons in project management are hard won, and stumbles can be very expensive.

My hard won experience supports the contention of that great management thinker Albert Einstein, noted above.  In every project that I have done that delivered sub par outcomes, at least some of the cause has been inadequate planning in one way or another, for one reason or another. Einstein may have been well known for things other than management, but that did not stop him mumbling things that should be on every managers wall as a reminder.

That experience has led me to the view that every project has four dimensions. For success you need to get them all right, 3/4 is simply not good enough, but of critical importance is the overall planning.

  1. Project Objectives. Having a set of objectives, expectations of the outcomes is why projects are developed, planned, funded, and executed. Being explicit about the objectives, and having everyone involved, and who may be affected, is essential.
  2. Project Scope. The scope describes what will and will not be done as a part of the project. Failing to have an explicit scope encourages ‘project creep’ and lessens the accountability. In the ERP implementations I have been involved in, project creep is an ever present cancer on the project, and those that failed to be absolutely explicit about the scope, and enforced it ruthlessly, failed to meet expectations in numerous ways.
  3. Project Budget. How much the project is expected to cost. Pretty basic,  but ignored often, and subject to blow-out as the scope creeps out of control. The only ones who benefit are the consultants who either fix the problems (often they re a part of the problem) and your competitors.
  4. Project Timetable. Every project need s a timetable, with milestones connected to the scope and costs, as well as performance.

Project planning stepsNo project can reasonably be deemed successful unless meets or exceeds the requirements imposed by all four parameters. Anything less will deliver sub-optimal outcomes.

How to make a workshop work for you.

How to make a workshop work for you.

Last week I ran a workshop that was designed to wrinkle out the options facing a community organisation. It has been successful for many years, but now faces the challenge of significantly changed competitive and social environments since its formation,  and the loss of a key person whose mission in life had become intimately tied up with the organisations success.

How was that volunteer passion to be replaced?

What did the future hold for this organisation?

How are they going to continue to win?

There was limited time available, certainly no time for chasing rabbits,  so the structure had to be pretty simple and lead to useful outcomes.  In reality is was bog standard ‘workshopping’

  • What is the current situation?
  • Assuming success for the next five years, what would the organisation look like? (I call this hindsight planning)
  • What had been the strategies, both  successful and unsuccessful that had been tried over the 5 years, leading to the success?
  • What resources and capabilities were now evidently required for the ‘success’ to be replicated in real time?

In starting to write up the workshop over the weekend, and necessarily reviewing my own performance as the exercise leader, I thought about the factors that in the past have made for a successful  workshop beyond the necessary structural elements.

Domain knowledge.

Workshops and so called ‘brainstorm’ efforts commonly fail because there is insufficient  domain knowledge and  expertise available that addresses the key questions central to the purpose of the workshop. Success in any activity requires the presence of some sort of plan, with objectives and metrics, combined with a factual assessment of the circumstances that led to the discussion. Without this level of immersion, the workshop will just be a conversation. ‘Think outside the box’ is often the instruction, but if that leads to random thoughts outside the relevant postcode, it will not add any value, and will be enormously distracting. Domain knowledge, and knowledge related to the domain in some relevant manner is essential.


As the Mad hatter said to Alice ‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there’  you need a map of some sort that includes your starting point and an end point. Without these, you  will go around in aimless, unconnected circles. No workshop of any kind ever works without some sort of map or guidelines understood by everybody involved.


Inspiration and ideas come from the friction created by differing and often opposing views presented by intelligent and informed people. Rarely is an idea complete at first blush, rarely can an idea not be improved by some level of refinement, and rarely does informed and creative debate not lead to creative solutions and ideas. It takes people prepared to accept that their idea is merely a contributor to a more complete picture, that it is a point in the road that contributes to a better outcome that leads to true inspiration.

Action plan

As with a workshop roadmap, any plan that evolves out of the workshop needs to have a plan, no different to the one that drove the workshop in its structure. As George Patton said on his drive towards berlin in 1945, ‘without a plan you are just a tourist‘.


An imperfect plan today, well implemented is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. Anther of the wise sayings of my old dad, ‘you get 1/10 for a plan, the other 9/10 are kept for the implementation’.

I have seen many workshops that come up with very useful stuff that is just lost or put aside once the participants get back to what they see as their ‘real jobs’ facing the urgency if the daily grind. It takes a good dose of leadership, and often outside  coaching to make the implementation part of a workshop actually part of the daily business of the enterprise.