Archives for category: Strategy

There’s nothing like a familiar sound to bring you back and connect you with something.

The other day I heard a wood pigeon coo-cooing somewhere in the estate where I live. It’s not a very familiar sound to me now, but back when I was a kid doing my homework in the bedroom that looked out onto the back garden of my childhood home, it was a very familiar sound. It instantly reconnected me to my past in an unexpected and not unpleasant way.

Sound and the hearing part of our senses have of course always been very important to a brand. We can all remember signature tunes from our favourite shows, programmes and global brands. A few examples: the 4-note signature of the UK’s Channel 4, the 5-note signature of the McDonalds ‘I’m loving it’ campaign, and the ‘Holidays are coming’ refrain from Coca-Cola for around this time of year.

Sounds are a key thread of how we identify with a brand and of the overall brand experience, along with the sights, touches, tastes and smells of the things we like to use or consume. They evoke an instant feeling and connection.

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Emails are tough to manage aren’t they? You blink or go away for a couple of days and all of a sudden your inbox looks like a war-zone.

Are you an active email manager or a laissez-faire kind of a person? On the one hand you can spend a few extra moments sorting out every single email the first time you read it, deleting it or filing it, which aggregates to hundreds of hours. On the other, you file nothing, maybe delete nothing, safe in the knowledge that you can search for emails and do an emergency triage if your storage limit gets tripped.

I take a different approach to my work emails and my personal emails. With my work emails I leave everything in the inbox or sent items, searching for stuff when I need it and doing a periodic cull of large attachments to relieve storage and aid computer speed. I knew a colleague who was a very successful salesperson and religiously kept his work inbox down to a handful of emails, all the time. How he did it I’ll never know.

With my personal emails – and many of the emails I get are subscriptions to emails from businesses – I try to delete and file, keeping my inbox as clear as I can. Inevitably it mushrooms out of control and I have to spend a few hours every 6 months getting the inbox and sent items down to a reasonable level, deleting stuff I should have and filing other emails away into folders that I’ll rarely access.

The trouble is, the periods immediately preceding a seasonal wipe session are less than serene. Like now, for instance…

I want to revisit the theme of an erstwhile post on how I often give businesses one chance and then they’re gone. When you think about it, it’s no chances, as their first slip up is their last. One chance would be their second chance. Anyway, with the irony of the blog title behind me, let me tell you a story.

I used to have almost all my insurances with one company: houses, cars, even tyres. I’d inherited them as a supplier from my Dad. Anyway, one day I had a car accident. A tourist driving a hire car in front of me and my boss – we were heading to hit some balls one lunchtime – missed his roundabout turn-off for the motorway, took the next turn, which was also ours, went 10 yards and attempted an immediate u-turn, forcing me to take evasive action and break my suspension on the far kerb.

The tourist admitted no blame – in fact he said .’you did not see me?’ – we exchanged details and so began a sorry saga which took months to resolve. My boss was not deemed an independent witness, I provided all the information I could, and ended up chasing the insurance company’s insurance company to try and resolve it. The last time I phoned I was told, ‘oh we’ve already settled the claim 50-50 with the other driver’s insurance company.’ I was furious, not at the injustice of the other driver lying, since many people will lie and cheat to get out of something, but at the fact that my insurer had let me down as a customer and failed to even let me know the result of the case.

I immediately cancelled all of my insurance policies with them. Their customer service team called me back, stuck to their version of events and that was that. It was like dealing with an enormous slippery snake, with staff hiding under its slithery skin.

Once chance – and gone.

Strategy and execution, as any good business school will tell you, are the Siamese twins of success. They both need each other, and they both need to keep each other close. One doesn’t work without the other. To strategise without executing is to do nothing, to put nothing into action. To execute without strategy is to ‘spray and pray’.

While the two exercises are equally valuable, in the consulting world they’re not deemed the same. Strategy work is the stuff that happens at the beginning and is of a relatively high value since the inputs directly affect the end result. Execution is following through on the decisions of the strategy, doing the work, putting the work out there and reviewing the results. It is perceived as of a lower value, since executing is basically doing what it’s been told to do by the strategy. A junior officer following the orders of a senior commanding officer if you like. Still a vitally important role.

This perception of value can have a direct effect on day rates and fees. From a consulting perspective, strategy is generally a collaborative exercise, at the customer’s premises and involving a number of people, where skills of facilitation and leadership come in. Execution can often be done on one’s own, from the home office, as it might involve building product, designing messaging, writing content, and putting together the communications assets to help deliver the message and transfer the information.

Indeed, you could almost say that strategy is consulting, whereas execution is about contracting. Strategy happens less often, and commands a higher price, whereas execution lasts for longer and involves more days’ work, but at a lower rate.

And this is the double-edged consulting sword of strategy and execution, as we strive to find the right balance between days in the saddle and fees coming in, between more stimulating work and less stimulating work, and between taking on work directly and delegating it to others.

Down for maintenance

The other day I was in a hurry to check the status of a flight I was taking later that week. I needed to know if I could fit in an appointment before leaving for the airport. When I went onto the website this is what I got.

For a company of this stature, and for a company that transacts online at this kind of scale, I find this flabbergasting. Such a website shouldn’t ever be down, certainly not at peak hours. This was 17:00 on a week day.

When I worked in the cyber-security business, the standard service level agreement for a cloud-based service was what they call ‘five nines’, or 99.999% availability. In some quarters, four nines wasn’t seen as sufficient for an enterprise’s mission-critical systems. To put this in perspective, five nines availability allows for total unscheduled downtime – assuming uptime is calculated on a 24/7/365 basis – of just six minutes, for the entire year, if my calculations are correct.

Which leads me to conclude either that this is one of those moments of unforeseen torture for a company that sets itself the highest standards of transactional availability, or that the company is in fact a bit sloppy or laissez faire with its customers’ goodwill.

In the time it’s taken me to write this post, I checked back on the site and it was back up, so perhaps we can give Ryanair the benefit of the doubt on this occasion.

There are two types of business-to-business client. I found this out in my first job after my MBA in the 1990’s when I worked for a design and marketing agency and had to get out there and sell.

The first type of client is the type that respects your work, trusts your expertise and domain knowledge, and generally takes your advice.

The other type of client is the type that wants it done his or her way, tells you what they want, because they know better, even though what they want may not be the best for them. They respond to what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.

The one factor that affects this division is the amount of experience and and expertise you have with regard to your client’s industry. The less you have, or can demonstrate, the less likely they’ll be inclined to take your advice and the more command and control their approach becomes.

You know the saying: ‘you get the clients you deserve’. Clients also get the agencies, suppliers or delivery partners they deserve.

The term ‘client’ is also problematic for me. We used it in the agency and some companies still use it, depending on their sector. It puts the customer on a pedestal. I agree that everything stems from the customer, and that we all should be customer-centric, but when you elevate your customer to almost divine status it makes it hard both to have a peer-to-peer relationship that’s based on trust and to strike a fair deal. Then you have a vendor/supplier-client relationship that’s unequal and approaches that of a slave-master relationship. That’s what the term ‘client’ feels like to me.

Our French friends use the same word – faire – for both ‘to make’ and ‘to do’. Perhaps some other languages do too. You get the sense from the French of which word it translates to in English.

When it comes to combining the sense with the word ‘work’, however, it’s a really good job we have two separate words, and with every justification, as they’re fundamentally different things.

Making work is making work for yourself, to keep yourself busy, or in a job, or making work for other people to have to do, in various uncharitable and unhelpful ways. It’s the creating of a system that keeps people and organisations in a job, rather than serving the community as a whole usefully. It’s the overcomplicating of things to discourage people from applying for or claiming what is either rightfully theirs or what they’re entitled to. It’s preserving the complex, the difficult to understand, the proprietary or the difficult to join in order to justify whole departments or maintain the exclusivity of a club. Huge swathes of the public sector are guilty of this.

Then there is doing work; creating outputs, producing things, executing on plans, the act of getting something done. Productivity and performance lives at its heart. It’s about closing sales rather than preventing sales. It’s about accelerating motion, rather than retarding it. It’s about access over exclusion, encouragement over discouragement, others over oneself. It’s about knocking through barriers rather than putting them up, and it’s about telling people what they can do, rather than what they can’t.

So the question to ask yourself, obviously, is this: are you making work, or are you doing work? And the sanity question is this: what would others say about you?

Have you ever heard the glorious phrase ‘piling Pelion on Ossa’ before? I hadn’t, until this morning, and I have somewhat of an education in classical cultures. Bear with me though, because it’s right on topic.

I was chatting to an old mate – old in terms of mateyness rather than age necessarily – of mine earlier today and he said something was like piling Pelion on Ossa. ‘What on earth does that mean?’ I asked. He told me about an essay he’d written at college and next to the same point he’d made for the third time in the same paragraph his tutor had marked that he was piling Pelion on Ossa.

It turns out that the phrase means introducing further complexity or redundancy to something that is already difficult enough, like putting one of the two Greek mountains Pelion and Ossa on top of the other. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you need to reevaluate your priorities, but you’ll also know that I’m a big fan of keeping it simple and avoiding complexity in our messaging and interactions.

How cool is that!? I encourage you all to wedge this fantastic phrase into everyday conversation this week, and see what kind of a reaction you get.

Blankness and a raising of the eyebrows will be up there I would imagine…

Solitude is great for concentration, great for getting things done.

As someone who does a lot of writing from home, I find that solitude and silence are the most productive drivers. I tend not to listen to music, or even have the radio on in the background. It’s just me and my thoughts, with no distractions. I do sing to myself, out loud, on the breaks though, as one does.

Of course, it’s horses for courses. A mate of mine who also writes for a living always has the radio on in the background, usually something high-brow like BBC Radio 3, which might explain his encyclopaedic knowledge of music.

It’s what you’re used to, and it goes in waves. There was a time when I listened to music when I wrote and the mood the particular music inspires can influence the writing, which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the subject matter and the tone.

After too much, though, the solitude and quiet gets to you, and mild cabin fever sets in. Then, for me, it’s time, not for music, but some old fashioned dialogue and some human interaction. A good home-working balance seems to be a mix of thinking, writing time in solitude and collaborative, team time in the office.

Do you set PAGs for yourself – personal annual goals? Perhaps it sounds a bit too organised, a bit too much like work. Maybe you like to go with the flow and see where you’re at the end of the year. Maybe you don’t think of your life like that and go through it savouring every moment.

If you do like to achieve things, and see an improvement in your life and the lives of those closest to you, then PAGs are a good way of doing that. They stop time running away from you. We know from experience that plans very rarely survive the first incursion into reality, but having some high level objectives keeps us on track and focused on the here and now I think.

I know a guy who sets himself PAGs. They might be things like ‘sell house for x, clearing y profit’, ‘change car’, and ‘earn z before taxes’, those kind of things. He really values them and he’s flying through them at the moment.

I think they work well for achievable or binary things that you have control over, like selling your house for a certain amount. Where they work less well is with big hairy arse goals, or BHAGs as the business folk call them, like get your first book published – not self-published – or getting a child into a highly oversubscribed school. These have a low probably rate of success, yet they’re still binary.

Personal Annual Goals are great ways of stopping time from running away from you, that most precious of resources that you can’t ever get back. In that sense, further chopping your PAGS into half-yearly, quarterly and even personal monthly goals, PMGs, is not a bad idea either.