“Network Advantage” – a book review

Network AdvantageI was delighted to review this book as part of the CMI Management Book of the Year competition. Here is what I offered:

This book delivers amply on the sub-title of “How To Unlock Value From Your Alliances And Partnerships”. Building on 40 years of well-referenced research, it links research findings with case studies from several industries before building valuable insights into different types of alliance, different levels of advantage, how to decide what pattern is appropriate for your company, then to construct, manage and unbundle your alliances. It guides the reader through a set of tools designed to help them understand and reap advantage from their company’s alliances. Whilst speaking of formal organisational alliances rather than networks, many of the concepts would be relevant in building and using your corporate or private networks more effectively.

Moving from vertical or horizontal integration to effective networks/alliances is a direction of travel for today’s organisations and managers of the future would do well to read this and explore how alliances will help their organisation. This book may not offer anything revolutionary but it is certainly revelationary in the way the prospects of real world organisations are analysed in terms of their alliance strategies.

Aimed at larger companies rather than SMEs, this is a ‘must read’ if your company needs the help/co-operation/support of others to succeed.

Asking difficult questions for a living…

asking difficult questions“So Geoff, what do you do for a living?” is one of those questions I get asked so often. It  begs either a full answer or, more often, a one-liner designed to either satisfy the craving of some contact who is not really interested or provoke someone who really wants to know into asking more. Hopefully the one-liner might be good enough to provoke the former type of enquirer as well!

So here is my answer

I ask difficult questions

I have to admit that I rather hope that when I make this response you in turn will ask me something along the lines of “Can you explain a in little more detail what you mean by that and how it will make a difference?” So here goes.

I want to start from proposition that we are all deluded about the world in which we operate. Each of us carries around in our head a map of the world, not a geographic map (although that will be part of it) but a ‘map’ of how the world works. But Alfred Korzybski is alleged to have said that “A map is not the territory”. So my map of the world, built up from my own experiences, learning, values, beliefs etc is uniquely mine and contains all those beliefs, biases and assumptions that have helped me function effectively in the world so far. But I’m sure you have already spotted the problem with my map – your experiences, learnings, values, beliefs etc are different to mine and so your map of the world is uniquely yours. They are both right and they are both wrong

The only basis upon which I can act is my own map of the world and because that map is both inaccurate and incomplete my choices are necessarily limited. They are limited by those implicit assumptions that allow me to function efficiently. I pull up at a red traffic light and assume that before very long it will turn to green so I’m happy to sit and wait; but after 5 min, 6 min, 10 min it has not changed green, do I hold my assumption that it will in due course change or do I revise my assumption to one that says the light is broken and drive through it? Perhaps a somewhat prosaic example but let’s have a look at how this might work in your organisation. As someone who works in organisations and helps others facilitate change, I so often come across a refrain along the lines of “Oh, we don’t do it that way round here” or “It can’t be done” or “Well, I will have to ask permission from xxxxx before I can do that”. Each of these responses illustrates one or more assumptions about how the organisation works. There are rules and processes and procedures and cultural norms and imperatives of all of which conspire to inhibit the possibility of change. At the simplest level, I could simply ask “What would happen if you just did it?”, although I usually need to delve deeper into the answer to that question asking, for example, “When was the last time somebody got sacked for failing to follow the procedure or taking their own initiative?” (Usually the answer is never – actually some people in my ex-employer often quote a specific individual, but he was actually sacked for covering up and lying about his mistake not for the mistake itself, a very big difference).

One of my favourite sayings, and I will claim it for myself unless and until someone can show me an original source, is “It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission” and, by the way, you are more likely to get it.

This surfacing and challenging of the assumptions is, of course, at the heart of any coaching process and it is perhaps no surprise that as part of my work on organisational change I end up coaching individuals, helping them find new ways of seeing the world (new maps) and hence new approaches to the personal or organisational challenges that they face.Simply responding the the question “What do you do for a living?” with “I am a coach” seems both insufficient and not really distinctive.

So please, next time you meet me and I respond “I ask difficult questions”, please ask me a difficult question in return.

Bankers out of control, NHS on the brink of failure?

This systemic failuremorning, I listened with increasing dismay to various politicians, officials and apparatchiks talking about unusually high numbers of deaths in some NHS trusts. This comes on the back of yesterday’s disclosure about the demise of the Liverpool Pathway and reminded me of all the troubles laid at the hands of bankers in recent years.

It seems to me that what we have here are a series of systemic failures each of which leads to discussions first of all about who to blame and secondly about which processes and procedures needs to be written, rewritten or improved. But to me all of these discussions miss the core point – that the failures are not of systems, processes, procedures, policies or off whatever artefact you want might want to name, but of people. It is about NHS managers who decided that meeting financial and operational targets was more important than caring for patients; it is about bankers who decided that personal and corporate profit was more important than the health of the global economy. These are ethical issues, not process or policy or regulatory ones.

And that is where thinking starts to fall apart. We are going to have a new banking code, the Liverpool Pathway is to be abandoned and the new one written, there is to be an enquiry into the failures of the NHS trusts with excess deaths. But all we will end up with is another set of regulations, policies, procedures etc designed to constrain future behaviour on the evidence of past events. Regulation, for what it is worth, is always behind the event. What none of this does is address the core ethical issue. I have worked in regulated industries and also do some work in the NHS and I am pretty certain that most of the employees I have come across want to do the best they can for their customers or patients. The woman who comes out to mend a burst in the water main outside in the road, or the man who massages a patient’s legs to prevent bedsores, has probably never read the reams of regulatory and policy guidance and nor should we expect them to. Surely what we expect of them is that they have the customer or patient at heart and I know that what most of them want to do is what is best.

Let me tell you a story. Throughout the autumn of 1995 and the early spring of 1996 I was part of a team that was leading a response to one of the most extreme droughts the country has ever seen. So severe was this drought that there was a very real possibility that customers would first of all have their water usage massively restricted and then even run out. At one early point in the proceedings, a view was expressed that this was “OK because our regulatory deal allows us to cut water off every 125 years”. The realisation that this was OK in principle, but far from acceptable in practice, occurred quite quickly. Once every 1 25 years sounds okay until those odds mature during my lifetime when I certainly do not expect to pay full price for a non-existent service. This recognition, and it was very clearly expressed by the CEO when he said “We will not run out of water whatever it costs”, galvanised employees in a way that was a delight to be part of. We maintained supplies at all times.

How many other managers and leaders in the banking and NHS continue to drive regulatory targets even when they contradict the principles of good patient care? It is too easy to get captured by regulation and to start to think that meeting regulatory requirement is the be all and end all of managerial leadership. I would suggest that true leadership is about making the regulators redundant by consistently delivering what the customer needs. After all regulators have often been described as pseudo-customers, put in place because the individual customer has too weak a voice. Well, let me suggest that success is about dealing with individual customers, each with their individual needs, rather than a surrogate represented by a regulator.

Success is about doing what is right, not what is allowed for in, or at the very edges of, regulation. We do not need more rules, we need states of mind that put the customer first whilst recognising the (often financial) constraints of the system. Isn’t it strange that so many people seem to think that the way to fix a systemic failure is to tinker with the very causes of that systemic failure. As someone[i] once said, “If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got”.

It is time to do something different, not more of the same.

[i] In the modern world, many people attribute this quote to Anthony Robbins, renowned motivational speaker and self-improvement guru.  Go back a few years, and people will tell you that Albert Einstein said it. Go back another generation or two, and Henry Ford gets the credit; before him it was Mark Twain.  It doesn’t really matter which of these thought leaders said it.  What matters is the truth of it…and the point of it.

Driving Organisational Change – 7 Tips to Help you Succeed

“The one constant is change” – and perhaps especially so in these difficult times.  These tips will help you make the most of your investment in consultancy.

 7 Tips to help your change succeed

  1. Lead as well as manage

Hundreds of books have been written about the need for change management and I am not going to disagree because any project needs appropriate management. Yet project management is not enough – it is about processes and the biggest challenge in change is that it affects people. This is where leadership comes in – be active in showing the future and the way to get there, support individuals and groups, listen as well as speak, be there when you are needed.

  1. Value and use resistance

You will meet resistors – they have their own reasons for not wanting to change and those reasons make absolute sense to them (if not you!). Listen to them – have they perhaps spotted something that has been missed? Have they got personal challenges (lack of training, concerns about future security, etc) that you can help them with? Resistors can cause more damage than the supporters can help. Treat them carefully, respectfully and individually – a ‘convert’ will be worth their weight in gold.

  1. Do what you can, where you can, when you can

I have yet to see the path of any change effort go smoothly; some things prove more difficult than expected and others simpler. For a big change you night think of it as lighting little fires all over the organisation – some will die out and you will need to come back to them but others will flare up and those you fan and help spread more widely.

  1. Ignore losses, consolidate wins

If you focus on losses or failures, they get bigger and more overwhelming, you then pull in even more losses. So find ways to ignore these losses. Shift your attention to something positive, stop talking or thinking about them. What can you do to consolidate your successes? Write them down or put them on a wall. Keep a record of your wins. Talk about them to everyone you can. Celebrate them. Make a habit of finding and focusing on the wins of others. The more attention you put on success, the more success you get.

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate…

THE most important issue. Everyone involved in the change needs to know why it is happening, what the future is going to be like, how it will affect them and their colleagues (don’t underestimate ‘solidarity’). It’s not just about newsletters, much more effective is routine face-to-face discussions in formal and informal (canteen, coffee machine…) settings – use your apostles (see Tip #6) to spread the word and explain what’s happening. And remember that you have two ears but only one mouth – this is where you sense the resistance that is so useful for Tip #2.


  1. Recruit sources of power

The power you can exercise is in direct proportion to your ability to meet the needs of your people. Power comes in many different flavours and they are all needed to create effective change as different individuals will respond to different power bases (the fact that you are the boss may matter more to you than them!). Your, and your apostles’, Personal Power will be much more valuable than all the Formal Power you can muster – the latter might create compliance, the former commitment.

  1. Find and nurture your apostles

You can’t do it all yourself, you need a small and growing number of individuals who are totally with you and actively supporting you. These advocates need constant support – ‘feed and water’ them because your change really does depend on them. Keep them close to you, allow them time and actively encourage them to get out on the shopfloor convincing others through the sheer commitment they show. Finally, reward them for their efforts.

What do you think? Can you offer any tips of your own?


Practical leadership – when to walk away.

Walk AwayI have just been reflecting on the various organisations in which I have a voluntary interest, typically as a trustee or school governor. Every single one of them either has had, or currently has, significant leadership issues – perhaps that says something about the type of organisation in which I get involved but I really wanted both myself and you to reflect on our behaviour when faced with serious challenges.

Throughout most of my working life I was paid, and sometimes handsomely, to face and deal with the challenges of organisational stress and change. I mention this because I have come to recognise that facing similar challenges as a volunteer is fundamentally different. In the first instance a security driver always kicked in, after all my employer paid my mortgage and set up a pension which now allows me to volunteer my time. The situation with volunteering is fundamentally different, I can walk away at any time and can even arrange such a departure that most other people involved would recognise that I was neither implicitly not explicitly knocking the organisation for which I had volunteered. Indeed I did that three or four years ago when I temporarily gave up all of my involvement in school governance because it was taking over and I realised that I needed to pay more attention to my business and personal life. Well, that is what I said at the time.

Reflecting on that, and taking account of my current circumstances, I wonder whether I had just had enough. I guess that I volunteer in the belief that those receiving my services will value them and be prepared to listen to what I have to say. Better still, act on it. When this does not happen, the change manager in me says something along the lines of “Well, the system is stuck and I am part of the system. What can I do differently that might provoke a different response?”

As a professional, one tries and tries and tries alternative tactics and strategies in an effort to unlock the system. Equally, as a professional I have come to realise that there is a time to walk away. I have probably mentioned before that, in something like 30 years of change leadership, one of the key lessons I have learned is “Do what you can, where you can, when you can”. The implications of that statement are that on occasions one ought to walk away from a challenge, partly because walking away is itself an intervention that might shift the system and partly because a change agent’s time is usually best spent on situations where they can make a difference rather than tiring themselves out in trying to move the immovable object.

So my proposition is that the statement “I have had enough of this” might well be my subconscious telling me to walk away. What do you think? Especially for those of you who volunteer your time, what keeps you there when the going gets tough?

The immovable object and the resistible force

In the second of my pieces on guiding principles for delivering effective change I want to talk, in a tangential way, about one aspect of how to handle resistance.

The one thing that is certain when you embark on a process of change is that you will meet resistance. Perhaps that ought to be two things of which are certain, because the other is that you cannot predict where, from whom or in what form that resistance will appear. But appear it will and you must address it. The point of this particular piece is one way of addressing it – not that  this is only one way, indeed there are several other tools that you will need to use. This tool is particularly useful in the early stages of the change efforts.

So, many moons ago I completed my masters degree in organisational change and my then boss asked me “What was the most significant thing that you have learned in two years of very expensive study?” My answer might seem somewhat glib, let me assure you it wasn’t and isn’t. The answer was “Do what you can, where you can, when you can”. And this is the second of my guiding principles for leading change effectively.

 Do what you can, where you can, when you can

When you get involved in change you will find some people who are really keen (the marketeers would call them early adopters), some who just sit and wait but will follow the crowd once they know which way the crowd is going ( I will call them ‘the herd’)and some who will actively or passively resist. My question to you is “Why would you want to spend time, especially at the beginning of a process, working with resistance when you could be creating change and generating enthusiasm by working with the early adopters?” As you work with early adopters they start to show the direction for the herd and slowly but surely the herd will follow. The contrary scenario is one in which your efforts are frustrated by and your energy sapped by resistors from whom the emerging messages to the herd are negative. All you do by working with resistors in the early stages is tire yourself out, build up more resistance and risk and entrenching yet further resistance in the herd.

So, perhaps my principle to do what you can, where you can, when you can is not so glib after all. I have likened the job of a change agents to lighting a series of small fires in an organisation. Sometimes the fire will take hold and it is those ones, especially in the initial stages, that you pay attention to, giving them whatever support they need to burn effectively whilst not becoming a wildfire. Some of your fires will just burble along, not dying out nor turning into wildfires – these you also support, looking for easy opportunities to help them along and maybe connect to different yet related places that are all part of the overall thrust of what you are trying to achieve. The ones you ignore are the fires that just flicker before dying out. Fire dies because it does not have enough fuel or enough oxygen, or enough people to supply it with fuel or oxygen. So let it die out until such time as you can find enough fuel enough oxygen (enough support and energy) to be able pay it some consistent attention.

To me this Principle –  “Do what you can, where you can, when you can” – is probably the most important principle in leading change. We only ever have a limited resource available so let’s make sure we commit our resource to areas in which we can make a short term difference, after all John P Kotter did talk about realising quick wins.


What stories could you share about how this division of effort, or perhaps lack of it, helped or hindered your change efforts?

There is no such thing as “Best Practice in Change Management”?

“ What is best practice in change management?”

This, and variations on the same theme seem to have appeared as questions in a surprisingly large number of the forums that I inhabit recently. And every time I read the answers with a falling heart.

Respondent A suggests the following six steps, Respondent B has a nine step process, Respondent C has a commercially secret process which they will sell you the several thousand pounds a day and so on… I can rarely resist the temptation, so I weigh in with my answer “There is no such thing as best practice in change management.”


Now I know that this is probably not what the questioner wanted to hear. Typically the questioner will be an enthusiastic, newly appointed change agent or middle manager who believes that you can manage change in the same way as you manage their process for producing widgets or appointing a new member of staff. I fear that most of these people are going to find out the hard way that change is more about leadership than management and that there is no such thing as a best practice process.


Now I am not denying – indeed far from it – that the likes of Kotter have a role to play, for indeed they do. But their role is to inform an emerging process which, if it is to be effective, also needs to be informed by the scale and scope of the change, the current and anticipated future culture of the organisation, the willingness of the participants, the capability of the change leaders and their teams and a host of other factors.

A recent piece by Alastair Dryburgh in Management Today reminded me that, in my experience, successful change rests upon adherence to some core principles rather than processes. His analogy, that if you cannot write an eight step process to guarantee winning a (deterministic) game of chess then how on earth can you write an eight step process to guarantee effective change in the much more complex and chaotic  human and physical environment of a corporation? Really illustrates the point.


The current reality of any organisation I have ever experienced is that they are a mess. Now admittedly some are more of a mess than others, but even the best tend to have a mess of policies that do not necessarily integrate with each other, an even more complex mess of procedures driven by those policies, an even more complicated mess of what actually happens in practice regardless of the procedures and policies and a way of working that has very little to do with the formal organisation charts so beloved of our colleagues in HR.

You don’t have to be involved in an organisation for very long to recognise that how things should work and how things do work are two different concepts. How things do work has typically evolved to get round the problems created by how things should work, and yet how often have I seen consultants trying to work with theory rather than reality? They are doomed to failure. So perhaps this is the first of my principles for leading effective change –

work with the current reality

I guess it is a bit like me setting off for London from where I live. In order for any map to be useful it needs to know where I am starting from. And that fact is not always easy to discover. If, in an attempt to understand the ‘As-Is’, you ask me what my postcode is you might reasonably assume that I live in Bradford. However if you asked me which city I live in I will tell you Leeds. So which map are you going to provide me with? In fact, because of the detail of where I happen to live, you will need to provide me with a much more detailed map than would be provided were I to set out from Leeds or Bradford. And always remember Korzybski’s compelling aphorism “A map is not the territory”.

So, in an attempt to keep this blog to a reasonable length, I will discuss some of my other guiding principles in subsequent entries. Meanwhile, what are the core principles that you use find a leading of facilitating change? I would love to know.

Fear of Failure

fear of failureOften, when coaching clients, I come across those with great ideas who just do not put them into action. Now there can be all sorts of reasons for this, and what I want to explore today is a very common one – Fear of Failure.
If the status quo is OK, there can be a sense of “well, if I try and fail then I will be worse off than now”, or “if it goes wrong then I will get the blame”, or “maybe a better idea will come along…”. All of these make sense to the client and lead to inaction. But inaction also eliminates the possibility of success.


It’s a vicious cycle:

“I fear the possibility of failure…

…that fear leads to inaction…

…which totally eliminates the possibility of success.”

There are times when it’s necessary to just bite the bullet and take some action – my experience is that more often than not all works out well. And even when it doesn’t “There is no failure, only feedback” and I get the chance to learn something.

Go on, make that dream happen – take a small step today.


No risk, no reward

risk is realityHow often have you heard the phrase no risk, no reward?

When I was at school I was quite good at chemistry, well ahead of the class. I vividly remember one practical lesson when the chemistry teacher, a wonderful man called Dave Hudson, took me aside and explained that he was going to give me a different practical to complete compared to everyone else in the class. He said that it was extremely difficult but that he believed I could do it. It turned out to be a fairly complex procedure, using some dangerous chemicals. However, I pulled it off much to my own surprise and quite possibly to the chemistry teacher’s. That practical lesson could well have been the moment that catalysed my future career. A brilliant teacher took a risk and allowed me to learn that I was capable of much more than I had so far showed. I blogged earlier about fear and anxiety in learning and this is clearly linked to the concept of taking risks. Risk creates anxiety, anxiety opens the possibility of learning.

So my challenge, whether you are thinking of personal development or the development of those with whom you work, is to think about the amount of risk you take in your daily life and to push the boundaries a little. How often have you not asked (the boss, your colleague, your partner…) because you fear the wrong response? Will surely the worst that can happen is that they say no and if you don’t even ask then there is no possibility of them saying yes.

So next time you really want to try something new, go ahead and do it – I might even suggest that you don’t even ask, just go ahead and do it because it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission and, moreover, you are much more likely to get it.

Risk and fear in learning

Comfort zoneI have just come back from three wonderful days in Peterborough helping train a small group facilitators. Now facilitation is a many headed beast with lots of different definitions and expectations. In this case we were helping the participants to learn firstly about a 10 step process and secondly about the art and science of helping groups to make decisions within that process. The first part, as I have commented previously, is relatively straightforward whereas the second is, to me, the interesting arena.

There is a whole bunch of theory about facilitation, with John Heron being the most well-known guru, but the theory is no use unless you can put it into practice and it is only in practice that one really learns at an affective level about the realities of group dynamics. Moreover, that learning is partly about group dynamics and partly about oneself – it is the self learning that I want to comment on here.

One of the exercises we gave this group was to tell them that a small number of very senior and very experienced people would be coming along on the second evening and that our trainees were expected to host them. That’s all we told them, no times, no expectations etc. It was, and always is, interesting to observe the group struggle with this seriously ill defined task (especially if, as in this case, the group is primarily comprised of left brain engineers). On review, all of the participants reported feeling fearful around this task, outside their comfort zone and worried about whether or not they could pull it off. Of course, they did pull it off and they always do and the review explored whether or not the success was despite of or because of their fear.

Perhaps it is both, because the fear and discomfort requires them to go into a creative zone and to overcome the fear. The clever ones amongst our clients realise that the task we give them is both a learning exercise and the real task and the very clever ones acknowledge that learning only occurs when we are to some extent uncomfortable. Indeed being comfortable means, by definition, that we know what is going on around us and if we know that then we cannot be learning.

So one of our challenges in helping people learn, and one of your challenges in learning, is to become comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ll say that again, we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable, because the only place where learning occurs in the uncomfortable zone. Not so far that panic sets in, but so far that our brains have to go somewhere new to invent ways of handling the situation. Now we could run away from the situation, but that would neither get the task delivered nor create learning. Or we could resist, and that might create a different sort of learning with good facilitation but it would simply get in the way of getting the task done. So effective learners accept the situation as it is, recognise the value of their own discomfort and working on themselves with others to create effective solutions. It is in this uncomfortable zone that creativity can really happen, and after all what is learning if not creating new neural pathways?

So, if you want to be a lifelong learner then maybe you should be on the lookout for opportunities to make yourself uncomfortable – do new things, go to new places, read new books, talk to new people… Face your fears, whatever you choose to do just push yourself every now and again into that zone of discomfort knowing that when you look back you will be able to discover some learning. No risk, no reward.

PS I have just come across a short interview with Ed Schein on this topic – thanks to my mate Wynn Rees for alerting me to his work on this subject.