The Pareto Principle

Pareto-PrincipleHave you ever noticed how some people, successful people, often seem to be less stressed and seem to have more time on their hands despite the fact that they get through more work? Somehow, they manage to focus on the key essentials of whatever they are doing. Well, they may be applying the Pareto Principle. The what?

Otherwise known as the 80:20 rule it was named for the Italian researcher Vilfredo Pareto who, in the late 19th Century, discovered that 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of the population. Allegedly he also found that 80% of the peas he collected form his garden came from 20% of the pods he collected!

Subsequently many other examples of the basic principle have been highlighted, including:


  • 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of a company’s complaints come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of the time its staff spend
  • 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its products
  • 80% of a company’s sales are made by 20% of its sales staff

Now this is simply a rule of thumb, a helpful heuristic that gets you focussing on the important stuff. It’s not even necessarily and 80:20 division, maybe 95% of your sales income comes from 5% of your customers. They don’t even have to add up to 100, maybe 90% of your accidents come from 4% of potential causes.

The point is, and I wish I had known this when I was starting out, is that you need to find the crux of the problem or task you are facing and apply most of your effort to that. Prioritise the important bits and the bits that are easy to resolve and avoid the trap that so many under-performers fall into of making excellent the enemy of good.


Who am I?

Who am I?
The search for enlightenment

The simple answer might be ‘Geoff Roberts’, but that is just a name. There are plenty of other Geoff Roberts’ in the world and even plenty of Geoffrey Malcolm Roberts’ – there you go, did you know my middle name or even that I had one? Yes, the name is somehow part of who I am, and I will happily answer to Big G, Big Geoff or in my early schooldays Kangaroo Kid (I could put together a mean long or high jump in primary school).

‘Who am I?’ prompts a somewhat deeper search for identity. A cook, a son, a husband, a stepfather, and brother, a facilitator, a writer and many more to greater or lesser levels of accomplishment. These too are part of who I am, yet really they are things that I do. Yes, the fact that I choose to do (most of) then gives insight but ultimately I may choose not to do any of them and yet I still exist. They are no more me than that name.

Being somewhat antipathetic to religions of any sort I cannot fall back on “A child of God” or whatever label followers adopt. Nor does atheism, especially the radical Richard Dawkins variety, offer much hope; indeed the question itself might be ruled out of order in favour of a more prosaic ‘What am I?’ – a collection of chemicals that somehow randomly came together in the past and found a way to propagate themselves into the future.

So, if not my actions or my beliefs, then am I my thoughts? I hope not. Who can deny at least occasionally having the odd inappropriate thought pop into consciousness, only to be promptly quashed by that internal editor who functions inside our heads? Maybe I am that editor? The usually invisible and occasionally conscious process that guides which thoughts persist into action, which generate ongoing thoughts and which are stopped in their very emergence. This is a guide who steers me towards what has previously been found to be effective, safe etc., which sometimes enables my mind and my body to experiment and which occasionally just says STOP!

This is a moral filter at work – ‘Thou shalt not kill, paedophilia is wrong, respect other people’s property…’ And it is also a practical, life serving one – don’t jump off things without a rope or a parachute, don’t slit your wrists just to experience the feeling of oxygen deprivation…

Of course all of this is learned – babies are fearless, we learn our moral code from our role models and those role models can just as easily be bad as good. What matters to us changes with life experiences.

So, who am I? Surely I am more than a collection of neurons.

Dealing with crises – a book review

Bolt from the BlueBolt from the Blue    by Mike Pullen and John Brodie Donald

This book explores approaches to crisis management.

Find out how balancing a broomstick on the end of your finger is relevant to crisis management, explore how the horsemeat in beefburger scandal is essentially the same as the CDO scandal that triggered the economic crisis and learn about how Donald Rumsfeld perhaps knew more than we think about the relationship between those classic Greek actors Scylla and Charybdis
The authors subtitle “Navigating the New World of Corporate Crises’ is relevant insofar as communications media and processes are more or less instant these days and so crises can erupt unexpectedly from the strangest of quarters– very different from when it took weeks to let Queen Victoria know that we had beaten the Boers. These instant communications channels offer/create challenges that are new to most companies, as is amply demonstrated in the host of case studies (perhaps a few too many, or explored in too much detail, for the practicing manager, who wants to know about ACTION) presented in support of the authors’ prescriptions:

  • Five key principles of crisis management
        • Don’t deny anything before you know all the facts
        • Your response time must be faster than the speed of the story
        • When the crisis hits bring in external consultants
        • Change the culture not just the policies
        • Be patient, recovery takes time

The bulk of the book explores, through extensive use of case studies, how crises can arise as a result of:

      • Six potential instigators of crises
        • Suppliers
        • Regulators
        • NGOs
        • Customers
        • Competitors
        • Employees

The book started as an easy and interesting read, but seemed to peter out about half way through when it became more descriptive than prescriptive. It would offer some useful insights to internal PR professionals and to the most senior management in any company although reading the Introduction and Chapter 1 alone would offer the most advice, the rest is a series of illustrations of how crises can arise.

“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.

Followership – what makes a good follower?

Followership  LeadershipThere are millions of pages read about how to be a good leader – just type both into Google and you are likely to get around 288,000,000 hits for Leadership and ‘only’ 472,000 for Followership. Moreover, from a cursory look at the topic, it seems that much of what is written is designed to inform Leaders about how they can garner better/more followers!

So, I am interested in how I can be the best follower I can be – given the leader I have (and I recognise that ‘my leader’ may change from moment to moment, task to task, environment to environment etc).

As an input to an enquiry at Roffey Park, where I am an Associate, I wrote a ramble on the topic. I repeat it below and welcome your thoughts, additions, criticisms, whatever – just say what comes into your mind as you read it…

You asked what I might like to contribute on the topic of followership. Truth is that I do not have any ‘theoretical’ inputs to offer and, as I said when I originally expressed an interest, this is one of those areas in which I have had a passing interest the many years without the opportunity to develop that interest into something more structured. Hence the willingness to participate in the group that you lead.

When I think about it, I find it extremely difficult to disentangle what it means to be a good leader from what it means to be a good follower. Perhaps this might be addressed by looking at, on the one hand, what a follower expects from their leader and, on the other, at what a leader expects of their followers. This might seem like a classic statement of the bleeding obvious but in my experience it has been rather rare to find a leader who expounds, either privately or publicly, what they expect of their followers; likewise, it is probably a very brave follower who advises their leader what they expect of them!

Whilst I might like to stay away from leadership, it is perhaps rather difficult in this context and so the following points are necessarily an incomplete expounding of my thoughts-incomplete in terms not only of the list of topics but also the explanation of that list.

Firstly, and perhaps above all, I expect a good leader to communicate effectively and I guess that puts an obligation on the followers to let of their leader know, in one way or another, when they are not being communicated with. I vividly remember a time when, in retrospect, I had the priorities of my job out of sync with the immediate needs of my staff. I was spending an increasing amount of time away from the office on strategically important stuff and came home one day to find a post-it stuck to my desk simply saying “Geoff you are no longer available”. This brought home to me more than any textbook or classroom exercise the importance of availability and communication when the followers needed it. Fortunately the relationship I had with my team was such that not only did they feel able to leave this message but they also knew that I would take it in the spirit intended.

I expect my leader to be open and honest with me, even if that occasionally means saying the equivalent of “I’m sorry but I can’t talk about that at the moment”. As a follower I must accept that there are occasions when my leader might be involved in delicate or confidential conversations which it would be inappropriate to disclose at the time. For me, the followership version of openness and honesty centres around not hiding the bad news from my leader as well as disclosing my feelings as well as thoughts about what is going on. I cannot expect them to lead effectively if they do not have the full picture.

This whole communications game has a feeling of being a dance, in which each party has to find out what the other party needs to know and passes such information along appropriately. Which brings me to another aspect of leadership and followership-communication style. As a follower I think there is an onus on me to find out not only what my leader needs to know but also how he wants to find it out. Does he want detailed written weekly reports or is he happy with a quick chat on the phone every Friday afternoon? My own style, generally discursive and flowery, caused some considerable tension between me and one of my bosses until I realised that his approach was very terse and factual-after which I changed my style and things became much easier.

Where there is a legitimate difference of opinions I expect my leader to represent that difference to other parties, rather than simply putting their own view forward. In return, I must commit as a follower to the principle of corporate responsibility and not undermine decisions taken by my own and other leaders.

The next thought that comes to mind relates to trust. As a follower I want to be left alone to get on with my own work knowing that my leader is there if necessary for help and advice. Reciprocity suggests that as a follower I must trust that my leader is doing his work on my behalf.

“I think there is an important area in followership to do with learning when to give up a particular battle. This could they simply because you recognise that the battle you are currently engaged in is simply not winnable, or it could be because of a recognition that giving up on the current battle releases resources to fight on more strategic fronts. The effective leader can guide the followers in this, but ultimately it is for each follower to make their own decision about where to put their resources.

I think I might also argue that an effective follower recognises that on occasions the boss might need help, even when the boss themselves might not have made such a recognition. I used to have a follower who was very good at taking things off me once they got past the initiation and into production phase-they did this because they knew where my strengths lay (not in production mode) and how theirs could complement me. Another aspect of this that might not be recognised very often is the loneliness of being a leader. I would not know whether to label it mentoring, coaching, counselling or what, but I am certain that an effective follower knows when their boss needs some form of support and is prepared and able to offer that support.

A good follower knows and respects the leader’s short, medium and long-term priorities and does not pester them with issues outside that envelope unless the follower can demonstrate the strategic importance of their issue.”

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?

Spend, spend, spend – what does it tell you about your Values?

Tods-Ferrari-Loafers-Mens-Shoes-RedA few days ago I went shopping for some shoes. Now that is a challenging enough task in itself, because over the years I have found that I am particularly difficult to please and, having wide size 11 feet, it is hard to find styles that actually fit me. Unfortunately I did not succeed on this occasion although I did find a beautiful red suede pair from a company whose pattern I know fits me – unfortunately it was not available in my size. So, what has all this got to do with personal development, leadership etc?

Well, the intriguing bit was when I was discussing it with my wife (and coach) and I offered the opinion that whilst I was prepared to pay the reduced price at which the shoes were being offered I would not be prepared to pay the full price of £100 a pair. She laughed out loud! And, strangely enough, so did I as the words came out of my mouth. So why laugh? Well we were sat having a single meal that would in the end cost as much as the full price of that pair of shoes that may last me several years!

This got us wondering what our shopping habits might tell us about our own value systems.  I cook a lot and claim to do so passably well, I am an adventurous eater and if someone rang me now to say there was a table available at The Fat Duck in Bray (for the uninformed, arguably the best restaurant in the UK and in the top 5 of the world) it would be a matter of seconds before I decided to accept and drive the four hours to get there. I read cookery books, I get presents to do with cooking and this Christmas my stepdaughter even bought me a chopping board inscribed “Geoff’s kitchen”. In short, food matters to me. Indeed, it seems that it matters to me rather more than shoes do – why else would I balk at paying £100 for a pair of shoes yet not think twice about driving for four hours and paying £200 for a single meal?

Sometimes I just want food and yes I have been known to eat in McDonald’s but most of the time my tastebuds are titillated by novel types of food, innovative ways of preparing and presenting it and eating experiences that incorporate the food into a wider milieu. I value the food and the eating, yet I know that the underlying value is that of innovation and that for me, the value of innovation is most beautifully expressed by great ingredients, great preparation and a great eating environment.

So, my challenge to you is to think about the spending decisions you make and how those decisions can inform you about your own value system. When you are making choices, those choices are influenced by your values.