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on the fail fast principle


For most of us we have become used to the fail safe way of working. I am old enough to remember a time when air brakes failed off leaving you with the best way of stopping being to find something soft to drive into. We don’t allow that these days.

Failures are things to be avoided and we work hard on our processes to find ways of doing it right first time, every time. If you are failing your KPIs it is career threatening, a thing of shame. No wonder that so many people are afraid of failure.

Yet we all know that we learn more from our failures and something that I adopt is based on a way of thinking that is called fail fast. The principle is to have something monitoring the system that warns of potential failure somewhere and puts things into a safe mode. It is similar to the Limp Mode that you may have found on your car. Some engineers are using it to push for failures, to encourage them to enable their eradication and this type of thinking is used in high pressure areas like Grand Prix motor sport to find and eliminate potential weak spots in any system or component.

Forty years or so ago we were doing something like this with software testing. The classic test was to take historic data and run that through the program to check that it was doing its sums correctly, but we mixed in erroneous inputs to see what happened. We would also overload the software beyond its specified capacities again to see what it would take, or otherwise.

With more manual processes this approach can also be tried and it will tend to show where the flow starts to fail. Critical Path Analysis is a good companion tool here and using the two can show how the CP can change user different circumstances.

These things can start as desktop exercises, but there is no substitute for doing them in real time because the the working environment will often through up things that would otherwise be missed; the story of my old boss and his M1 traffic jam has been told here before, but it was a classic case of the real world making a bugger’s muddle of what looked like a great plan.

The key message here is to always look at what other people in unrelated industries are doing. It is time rarely wasted because everyone has a need to make things happen as efficiently as possible. How they do it and the way that they think about their problems can often through up an idea that you can adopt or adapt. Take time to look around; you never know what you might find.

on attitudes


People are strange. We all are to some degree or other, but there are times when one or more will just be contrary; they will not accept the common belief in something. How you overcome that as a leader is something that you will have to come to terms with.

Take the current position on wearing masks whilst shopping. It was plain from the start that it was a good idea in general. Yes there are some problems, but if you wore a mask correctly and observed the readily available advice on wearing and disposing of same then you were going to be at less risk than without and were less likely to spread the plague if you didn’t know you had it.

Now it is compulsory unless you have genuine reasons for not wearing one, but there are plenty of people taking the “I’m not wearing one” stance. They all have their own reasons, but why defy a requirement, especially one that makes sense?

The internet, social media in particular, does not help for it is hardly the place for sensible debate let alone good advice. But if someone wants to believe something they will do so and will not be easily persuaded otherwise. I recall a case where we had found funds to refurbish the restaurant at a building that served around 1300 people daily. The original layout and furnishings were around 25 years old and very much on the lines of a 1950s works canteen, so a refresh was long overdue.

We did some consultation with the users and from that the architects came up with a new style. A display of the proposals was put up in the restaurant for people to see and comment on and I went along that day to get some direct feedback. “Where are we going to eat when all this happens?” was the first comment, so I asked what they meant. Surely it was obvious that everyone would continue to eat in the refurbished restaurant, but no, there was a strong feeling that the new layout was “too posh” and only designed for the select few; the “ordinary workers” would have to eat at their desks or find somewhere else to have their lunch. There was also a firm belief that prices would go up to levels that they could not afford despite a clear assurance that they would not.

Around 200, of the 1300, were convinced that they would not be allowed to come into the new restaurant and, once it opened, about 50 declined to use it in case they were refused service. They would not believe the evidence before their very eyes and you can do nothing about that sort of bigotry.

As a leader you try to take people with you, but you cannot allow yourself to be distracted by minorities. Spend time on them by all means, but don’t forget the majority who are with you all the way. If they think that you have lost interest in them you will loose them too. Attitudes can be changed and good leaders can do it with ease, but never forget the law of diminishing returns; spend your time one the people that are worth the investment and don’t waste too mucho in those that are not.

on the SISI principle


In good teams there is a focus on individual goals; if everyone delivers their part to the best of their abilities then the team will succeed. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a very good basis for success, but in executing such a way of working it can go wrong.

Where it goes wrong is that you have a group of individuals and not a team and there will be none of the synergy that real teams enjoy. The foundation for good, and possibly great, teams is to ensure than everyone understands what the organisations goal is and focuses their attention on their part of that, but also working for each other as the day goes by.

You want people who have each other’s backs, who will think of the common good and not just of their own targets. It is about helping the team succeed and not individual glory. It isn’t about baling out lame ducks; that is your job as the leader, but it does include putting things right when there is a problem.

The SISI principle is built around the old adage; Everybody was sure that somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but although it was everybody’s job everybody thought that somebody else would do it. In the end nobody did what anybody could have and somebody should have done.

SISI stands for See It Sort It. If it needs doing then do it. If you can’t do it find someone who can, but get it sorted now, don’t leave it for someone else. If a colleague is in trouble help them. If you are struggling seek help. If you see a problem then sort it. It can be the most trivial of things; leaving the photocopier without paper, not putting a new toilet roll onto the holder or not tidying up. All of these things are the grit in the gearbox that wears people down, but if you can get them to just fix these things as they go you get that synergy.

It comes from team spirit, but it also builds team spirit. Once you get a group working as a team you will find that they can absorb pressure like a sponge. They are all confident that someone has their back and develop a belief in themselves as a team that can do anything.

SISI, it easy. It cost nothing and pays back in volumes. Why not try it?

on “I told you so”


It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, there will always be someone who thinks that they know better and you can always rely on them to say so. Said to your face is one thing, but if you are in any position of responsibility the likelihood is that they will tell everyone that they can just how badly you got it wrong.

For anyone who is leading making decisions is a problem. Whatever you decide impacts on others and their families; your own people, suppliers and customers can all suffer if you screw up and bring the business down. If you are the one in the hot seat then you try to make sure that all of your decisions are made based on the best information that you have at the time and the consequences of your decision are well thought through.

Over the years I have made hundreds of big decisions for the businesses that I have worked for or owned. The beast majority of them didn’t turn out too badly, there were a few spectacular failures and about the same number of decisions went so well that they kept me employed and well paid. I would love to claim credit, but the reality is that luck played a part part in almost all of the outcomes, good, bad and middling.

It would be easy to control the outcomes if you could control the environment that you are working in, but you can’t. The world is a dynamic place and things around you are changing all of the time. Any advice that you can get on the future is based on the past and it is not uncommon for results to work out to be the opposite of what was confidently predicted. Research is constant and can also show results that swing like a pendulum so if you catch the swing going the right way you are fine, but if you catch it at the end off a swing you look a chump. And you can safely bet there will be those who delight in pointing that out.

You learn from mistakes, but a decision that doesn’t work out as well as it ought is not a mistake and I would always accept constructive criticism from people who has also been in the hot seat. How you react to failure is important and adds to your experience as you face the next big decision and the one after that. The armchair critic and the Monday morning quarterback can, and will, have their say, but you can largely ignore them, simply because they did not have the decision to make. In any case they are working with hindsight and any fool can say a decision was wrong then.

The other thing about the “I told you so” mob is that they rarely can explain what they would have done or why that would have worked. Look at politics; the opposition will always criticise the lot who are in power, but they rarely come up with any credible solution and, should they gain power, are rarely any better with their own decision making.

As a leader you will find the world a lonely place, but that is how it should be. You take on the responsibility and you do your best. If you are good enough you will make decisions that work out well most of the time. Let your team take the credit for delivering those because it is them who will be doing the work. Take the failures on the chin yourself regardless of why the idea failed, and let you critics take a running jump.

on good and bad


I am an avid reader. I have been since I learned to read and have always got a book on the go. At the moment I have three; one a technical tome that I read on the dining table, and e-book biography that I read on my ‘phone over breakfast and breaks at work and a paperback biography for bedtime reading. From two of this trio comes some thought on good and bad in people.

There was a man who was prominent in a field that I know a lot about. He was, in many ways, a pompous ass and was not quite as good at what he did as he thought he was. I would have loathed having to work with him in that respect, but on the other hand he did a lot of good things. Overall I have always though of him as a decent enough bloke, but one of the books that I am currently reading alleges that he was far from good.

It is a common enough theme; Rolf Harris gave a lot of pleasure as an entertainer before certain facts became known and he went to prison for his actions. Jimmy Savile did a lot of good for various charities, but was also found to be a bad lot after he had died and no doubt you can think of your own examples.

Over the years I have worked with people who have been lovely as individuals, but a nightmare to work alongside. There have been others who have been a delight to work with yet were not people that I would have wanted to know outside of the office. My view is that I have a job to do and it will get done regardless of how I feel about the people around me and I am sure that there are people who have known me who did not like me at work or would not have wanted to socialise with me. It matters not to me.

There seems to be a view these days that people should be perfect, but we aren’t. There is always the possibility that there will be something about us that would offend others. For most of my life that didn’t matter; I have always had friends who had different political views to me, supported sports stars or teams that I can’t abide, were deeply religious (I am an atheist) or whatever. Our differences often cemented the friendship as we argued our respective points of view.

My friendships have also survived where the other party has done something that they should not have done. I am not going to abandon a pal lightly; if you are my friend and you are in trouble you know that I will be there for you. This is not something that I was directly brought up to, more that it is how my attitudes have evolved.

I do not expect perfection from anyone, let alone politicians and business leaders. Yes I would like them to behave to a standard that I would find acceptable, but why should my standards prevail? There is good and bad in us all and I can live with that.

on decisions


A perennial topic this one, but the current criticism of the government here in the UK prompted my thoughts because one of the most usual causes of decision paralysis is getting it wrong; if you don’t make a decision you can’t make the wrong one.

I am talking here about critical decisions because there are unimportant things where doing nothing is often the best corse of action, but when there is something important to be done you should do something so not doing it is most certainly wrong.

A favourite quote of mine is from Yogi Berra the American baseball star; “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”. Decision making in business or government is more complex than the 50:50 chance of getting it right or wrong, but you are working with three parameters; time, knowledge and resource. Of those you cannot control time and you may not be able to control resource or knowledge before time runs out.

You have to go with the best that you have and accept that you might not get it right. Be decisive and, once it is over and you can see what happened, look at whether or not you could do it better next time. An investigation is essential, but it should never be about blame, always about learning and improving.

Every decision you make will have consequences, but doing something is both an opportunity to learn and it puts experience into the pot for when you have to make the next decision. Fear of failure is an instinctive response, but one that you need to push past if you are to grow. The more you do the more experience you have and experience helps you respond to the consequences of your actions.

Another sporting hero provides an appropriate response here. Eric Carlson was one one the finest rally drivers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time when rally cars were simply tuned up versions of road cars and safety equipment minimal. He was asked what went through his mind when he approached a blind brow in the forest at night whilst driving at over 100mph. He thought for a moment and said; “Well, the road must go somewhere”. That is experience talking. It gives the confidence to be able to deal with whatever comes. Like Yogi’s advice to take the fork, whatever choice you make your experience will help you deal with whatever comes your way.

There will always be someone who will tell you that you have got it wrong and these people will almost always be those who did not have to make the decision. Pay them little heed for these are the Monday morning quarterbacks who have the benefit of hindsight and had no skin in the game. They might be right, they might be wrong, but as long as you made the call as best as you could with the time, knowledge and resource that you had then at least you did something. Learn and move on.

on other ways of making things happen


I mentioned recently the EFQM model, another tool that, when used well, can serve a useful purpose. For me the great benefit that I got from it was understanding the linkages between ideas and results, the enablers. I have been reading a succession of political biographies and commentaries of late and there are many instances where promises made at the hustings have not been delivered. There are many reasons for this and, in general, it is not because the politician is telling lies. Certainly sometimes they do relying on the fact that we are too gullible to see the truth, but there are three other key barriers.

Read more…

on times when thinking is a bad idea


Sounds daft to propose that there are times when thinking is not too clever, but I firmly believe it to be true. I would not advocate it as a blanket strategy, but there are times when being able to block certain thoughts will pay dividends. Read more…

on what comes next


At some point the Covid-19 crisis will begin to ease and the restrictions currently in force will be relaxed or removed, but the world has changed. Some businesses will not survive and others will have to change. Jobs will have been lost and commerce and travel will not return to where they were six months ago. Read more…

on a question of trust


I have been reading a lot of political commentaries lately, not as a form of self-flagellation, but out of interest. A common thread has emerged from this that brings to mind parallels from my business experience down the years and I will call it The Curse of the New Broom. Read more…