Monday, 28 September 2015


When I stopped laughing I realised a senior executive at the big global Corporation I was talking to this week had defined what lay at the root of the VW fiasco. We were talking about the sclerosis that was infecting his business.

We’re great at diagnosing problems but hopeless at fixing the problems.
“Why?” I asked                                                                                                                                           “Because we have action points like this: Action: Fix the problem.

I was laughing so much because it simplifies our journey towards a perfect world by issuing such clear instructions.  Action: cure cancer; Action: stop wars; Action: reverse climate change; Action: be happy.
I recalled the quote from Michael Jordan.

If you're trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I've had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.

To which I always wanted to ask

Does that include cheating as a solution?

The command and control mentality that pervades so many companies leads to a mind set of “Don’t care how you do it just do it….action: solve the problem - don’t care how.”

Do we suppose that the guys at VW sat there and said what a very effective advertising executive, now sadly dead, once said to his assembled team:

This is a crisis. We have only one fool-proof strategy at this point. We shall have to lie.

I suspect a creeping sense of dismay at failing to crack the US market fast enough and realising changing minds about diesel emissions was seen as key to this led to a mission of collective mistranslation and Nike do-it behaviour plus a feeling of everyone-else-does-it/could-do-it/will-do-it so we’ll do it - schoolboy stuff. Having said this is not to excuse what happened nor to excuse what I suspect will be the consequences of what VW contrived to do in working around the problems they saw.

In a world of emotional branding where decades has been invested in clothes of “trust me with your life, your family’s life, your new born baby’s life”; where the brand VW becomes part of the family, betrayal of trust has terrible penalties. VW has been caught having an affair with the Devil - there are scorch marks on its collar.

Two VW executives said telling things:
We’ve completely screwed up
We must win back trust

No. Both statements are those that a serial adulterer might make not a repentant supplier…you earn trust not win it. This is not ultimately a game.

The lessons from VW, RBS, BP and Enron are always the same although the circumstances each faced and the wickedness is different for each.

If you are determined in a come-what-may sort of way to be the biggest you will always, in the end, cut corners, fall short of being properly diligent and revert to cheating.

Strenuous competition is OK but never forget what you really, really  stand for.

Monday, 21 September 2015


As you get older your memory seems to worsen but it’s more complicated than the just the onset of senior moments. Quite simply you have much more to remember than someone younger who’s been to fewer places, met fewer people and done less. The attic of your mind or, if you prefer, your “Mind Palace” is crammed to the rafters and finding that name or that reference is hard as it’s lying behind all those memories, thoughts and experiences.

The mind is also good at being a therapist. Forgetting things can often be very helpful. If we could vividly recall as though it were yesterday each  root canal procedure we’d had, every embarrassing faux pas and every crisis and tragedy we’d soon become a gibbering wreck. Our mind filters this stuff and sometimes deletes the names of people we actually didn’t like but had felt we ought to have because they were important. Our mental search engine is on our side and it even rewrites history casting us in a better light than we deserved.

Remember that horrible confrontation with a mugger who was about to hit you when you cried:  “don’t - please don’t”, and at that moment a passer-by intervened and drove him off.  In the recut version of the play you smite the beastly ruffian with one blow of your fist and it is he who cries in a quavering voice “don’t please don’t, please don’t hit me again” and you laugh and send him on his way. Yes!

Daniel Kahneman in his epic “Thinking fast and slow” describes the distorting power of memory and how we can decide, if we choose, that a favourable reconstruction of history makes us happier people. If we can only remember things as they were as vividly as if they’d happened today we should never forgive. The Irish Peace Agreement, the cordial relationships we have with Germany and Japan and so on would be impossible. Forgetfulness and shading of memory enables forgiveness.

It’s in a court of law where two people of good character, with no incentive to tell anything other than the truth, very often claim honestly to see things from a completely contrary point of view. It’s why our legal system is so robust and effective. It understands that people unblinkingly and unwittingly lie and it seeks to unravel this.

Less importance is attached to memory than ever…why try to remember when Google can do it for you? But memory matters. Nearly all speakers at conferences feel they speak without notes (that’s memory); making creative connections is done by … memory; avoiding plagiarism is done by good memory (plagiarism is done by simple memory);  good human relationships depend on memory (remembering birthdays and anniversaries).

The mind is kind. It responds to our needs and our desires. You can train your memory, you can focus on what you need to remember but you can also filter out bad stuff. Remember, your mind is on your side.

Monday, 14 September 2015


For many of us, sixteen of the first twenty years of our life are defined by Michaelmas, Easter and Summer terms. And so it is that around this time of year the smell of autumn - Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and back to school paraphernalia fill all our minds.

The three phases for me in a work schedule work are :-

  • Back to school - renewal, new classes, new teachers, a new syllabus and above all change. In that remorseless run up to Christmas the agenda for change is omnipresent.
  • New Year  resolutions - and even if we aren’t exactly wedded to these the need to self- appraise and set goals burns in our souls as the skirl of New Year bagpipes fades away
  • Spring clean - this happens as the first sounds of woodpeckers and doves fill our ears in May; time to clear out, renew and simplify

But it wasn’t until I went to America in their fall and realised what a big and colourful story it was as trees turned golden, red, orange and sienna.

As the process of new school discovery started over the last week that familiar feeling of looking at a clean sheet of paper struck me.

One of my grandsons, the elder one aged 8 described the pressure of being in year 4. He made it sound like Finals Year at University as he reflected in tones far older than his years how it was going with his new form teacher.

She said she’s going to make sure we learn in every available second. We used to play more now it’s maths, maths and more maths. I’m feeling tired and a bit depressed.” 

Shades of Mrs Trunchbull.

I felt tired listening to it. When I was 8 we played a lot. I wrote stories about journeys to Canada where I fought off Grizzly Bears and ate tomato sandwiches. We sang songs, went on nature walks and I wondered if I’d get to see Isobel Black’s knickers at playtime. I remember a complete lack of stress although there was an underlying  terror that one would get caned for some inadvertent misdemeanour.

Matthew Arnold in his poem the Scholar Gypsy captured then, in 1853, what I think is truer today, 160 years later:

O born in days when wits were fresh and clear
And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames

Before this strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims”

In the long ride to Christmas which I see has already been well trailed - my wife is buying Christmas cards already -  I worry that I am having more fun than my grandsons and great nieces who seem tyrannised by SATS and homework.

I love the call to action but doesn’t  laughter,  frivolity and dance have a place too?

I recall my mother once grimly saying “life is real and life is earnest”. She was way ahead of her time.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015


Last week I talked to a number of successful and remarkably talented people. They had a few things in common. They were all incredibly busy and were enjoying themselves.  More interestingly all of them were going through a non-stop process of self-examination regarding their strategy for sustaining their success.

Whilst I like the philosophy of Dr Steve Peters the renowned sports coach - “life’s unfair; they keep moving the goalposts; all you can do is try your absolute best” - I’ve always been a sceptic about using sport as a way of counselling people in business. Winning a gold medal, or winning a test match are not the same as succeeding in business. For one thing the measurement of success is more complex. As one of my superstar successes confided to me “business is all about psychology…you are as successful as people think you are.

Here are four strategies to help achieve that:-

Be different. When Alan Bennett won a scholarship to Oxford he played the game of being a contrarian brilliantly. If you ever saw the History Boys you’ll understand. Be noticed for being radical. The same applies to all success. Being the same as everyone else is a poor strategy.

Be patient. Sam Walton who created Walmart took time to get going, opening his first store in 1945. Not until 1962 did the steamroller that we know today really power forwards. By then he’d made a lot of mistakes and learnt even more. Patience in Sam’s case was a virtue. Something we see little of today.

Know your part. When success happens despite oneself it’s time to throw away the management guide books. Peter O’Toole, a legendary drinker, got plastered and awoke at 530 pm appalled to have missed his matinee performance. He rushed to the theatre abjectly and apologised. They looked puzzled. “But Peter you played the part and were splendid then you shot off saying you felt a bit tired.” Can that really be true? I hope so.

Be like Jack Welch. The legendary powerhouse from GE whom they called “Neutron Jack” for his ruthlessness in eliminating workforces whilst leaving the buildings that had housed them intact. He put it like this. “I want my executives to demonstrate simplicity, speed and self-confidence.

Keep on asking yourselves hard questions. In a fast-moving and intense world of work do not rely on yesterday’s formula for success. Be prepared to try new approaches and whatever you do keep on introducing new products and ideas; because if you can’t create news you should be prepared to become history.

And there’s one other thing - be shameless about enjoying yourself. If you hate what you do you won’t do it very well. As someone put it so vividly “getting in early and opening the shop is such fun.

Maybe that sense of opening up your shop is the first step towards having a really positive open mind.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015


Peter Lederer used to be Chairman of Gleneagles and was the most impressive thinker about customer service I’ve known. He described the circle of doom in which however hard you try to make amends to a discontented customer you manage to make it worse. You know the sort of thing …the waiter carrying the complimentary glass of champagne to Mrs Grumble trips up and soaks her.

I think it’s what used to be call the feminine argument…”and another thing” - because it seems true that when one thing goes wrong the victim becomes a Victor Meldrew list-maker of errors - “typical, just typical”.

My feet of clay award goes to the John Lewis Partnership. The organisation is one I admire and Charlie Mayfield is the most impressive CEO I know. I once made an observation to him about something Waitrose had done which struck me as wrong. He replied carefully, courteously and signed it. Brilliant stuff.

Recently Waitrose, my Waitrose has been unable to put a foot right. I got rotten, stinking asparagus twice and was a sent a rotten response by Customer Service Bracknell (“Thanks for letting us know that one of our products was not of the standard you expected”- no the standard of reeking rottenness was well below par!) I bought some tea and most of the bags were split (Twining’s fault but I blamed Waitrose); Mr Sheen no longer stocked (black mark); they never bother to replenish the cups of green charity vouchers at check-out (meanies - don’t care about charity); a chicken on sale on August 29th with a sell-by-date of August 23rd. I told them to remove it from sale and they looked at me as though I were a troublemaker (which is just what I’d become). And the guy at checkout was sullen and unhelpful.

John Lewis Oxford Street fared just as badly. I queued 20 minutes for coffee because the 4th floor café was understaffed); the queues were worse and impenetrably slowed down by the jolly conversation of the staff in Greeting Cards and, finally, an American shopper in household appliances who was puce in the face screeched her outraged complaints with ripe language for being ignored.

These unrelated incidents do not constitute a case for the prosecution. The organisation is great and does most of what it does brilliantly.  But I wonder if I’m getting a preview of incipient problems.

Lucy Kellaway wrote about the customer revolution recently:

At Amazon, the customer wins — and the employee does not. The company may not have chosen the most morally acceptable trade-off. But it has laid bare this fact of economic life: when some win, others lose.

At John Lewis the employees are partners and have a lot of power. I wonder if the smell of complacency and a slowdown in the mission to improve is what I’m detecting. I wonder if others are sharing my missing of delight in the place.

But unless this welling rage goes I’m going to have to shop elsewhere.