Archive for February, 2011

>The Plank – what I’ve been learning as a builder’s labourer


Coaches tell you that if you want to make progress, you need to get out of your comfort zone. I’ve been so far from comfortable the last three days I’m not sure where my zone begins and ends.

We are doing an extension to the house. My mate Bill the builder is the expert, and I am the labourer/apprentice. That means, for instance, when we are cutting down a tree which is the way of the building, that Bill wields the chainsaw, while I hold the rope and Bill says: “Pull that way, and try not to pull it on top of yourself.”

The big challenge, for me anyway, has been the digging of the footings. There’s no room to use a bobcat, and this job is being dug by hand. That means hack out the dirt, fill up the barrow, and load it onto Bill’s tip truck.

To get the barrow up and onto the truck, there’s a four metre long Plank. It’s about 250 mm wide. You get a bit of a run-up, push the barrow along the Plank, then tip the barrow up when you get onto the truck tray.

Sounds simple, but the Plank has taught me a few lessons over the past couple of days:

Commitment – you only really have one shot at getting all the way up the Plank with the barrow. That means you have to take a few seconds to line up, build up speed and then just go. “Keep your feet a bit sideways,” says Bill. You have to keep the wheel of the barrow dead ahead, and your feet behind it on the narrow Plank. Once you go, you have to keep going. There’s a 1.5 metre drop on either side.

Acceptance – Once or twice, no matter what commitment I made, or what effort I applied, just as I got to the top of the Plank I couldn’t get the barrow up and over. Accept the failure, and make a choice: let it fall and clean up the resultant mess; or retreat ignominiously down the ramp with the barrow pushing me instead of vice versa. I chose the latter, thinking how stupid I would look on Funniest Home Videos.

Over-thinking – After the first 30 or so barrow loads up the Plank, I got a bit philosophical, and thought: “There must be some Zen in this – when pushing, just push.” I then went up the ramp in a very un-Zen-like way, thinking through the process, got to the top of the Plank in a muddle, and had to toss the barrow sideways onto the truck to avoid falling off the edge. I was doing a whole lot better before I started analysing.

Persistence – I got pretty sick of pushing the barrow up the Plank, and physically tired as well. The dirt, however, kept coming out of the trench and there was only one place for it to go. I had no choice – keep running up the Plank. I had to apply a large dollop of “This too shall pass,” and a sprinkle of “May this too serve awakening”.

Suspending ego – Bill the builder is the same age as me. We each had a barrow, and it was pretty soon clear that his barrow was filled with more dirt than mine each time we respectively ran up the Plank. It took only one experiment, where I tried adding half the difference between Bill’s barrow-load and mine, then almost came to grief on the Plank, for me to realise that I wasn’t going to be playing any keeping-up-with-Bill games. Just whistle and be happy pushing my David-sized loads.

The Plank was an unexpected, unlooked-for mentor. If I ever hear anyone say about someone else: “He’s as thick as two planks,” I had better go and ask the specified person what they may have to teach me.

>Handwriting – only for Luddites, or almost cool?


For a guy who publishes a weekly blog post, I’m a bit of a dinosaur. I can’t type properly any more. In another life, another time, I was the first lawyer in the office to type their own syndicated multi-option finance facility documents (“SMOFFs” of course). I drafted the complex bespoke clauses straight onto the screen.

The typing pool, if you can remember when there was such a thing, looked on me as some kind of scab labour. Probably rightly, looking at where things have got to.

Now, my bent arthritic fingers can’t seem to find the rioght kleys wiothout hittring tqwo of them at once. The consequence is that I do all the first drafts of my blog articles, and of most other things I write, in handwriting, then do the editing on the screen after fluffing my way through the transcription and correcting the multiple typos.

Actually, I’ve come really to like doing first drafts by hand. I can let the writing flow much better than it would with my unavoidable typing stumbles. I can jot down multiple versions if I’m not sure about the right words, or just leave it to the editing phase. I can do it anywhere, any time; without, for instance, being hassled by airline hosties on ascent and descent when everyone else has to turn off their digital gear to meet some arcane safety requirement.

What I really need to admit, though, is that I am now a handwriting dilettante. I can remember, only 4 or 5 years ago, decrying some young bloke who noticed me writing and enquired whether I ever used a fountain pen. “Not even I am that pretentious,” I said.

Well, now I am that pretentious. I really love the heft of a Waterman in my hand, and I affect using turquoise ink instead of boring blue. I consider it hip to use a Hemmingway-esque Moleskine book, the one with the dark brown covers and the creamy paper inside.

There’s an element of redemption about the whole thing, too. When I was a youngster, I had really wanted to be dux in 6th class, and in my memory of what happened (valid or not), I only came 4th because of my mark in “writing” (yes, a real, examinable subject way back then), where I got 64/100 in the test of how well we could reproduce that awful and soulless style of writing called “modified cursive”. Now I can write however I like.

Many of my friends who are still living the full time professional life are either terribly impressed with the versatility and it-factor of their iPads, or are lusting after one, trying to justify the expense. I covet that Lamy fountain pen which has no cap, but lets the whole nib retract into the body of the pen when you twist it. I’m just as busy trying to justify the expense.

Here’s what some famous writers have said about handwriting:

“Writing by hand is like walking somewhere instead of whizzing there by car. We notice landmarks. We retain a sense of direction. Writing by hand will show us True North and the false switchbacks and directions that have occurred, the shortcuts that saved us nothing and took us nowhere.” (Julia Cameron, The Vein of Gold)

“Your handwriting tells its own stories. Handwriting also makes your journal writing more personal. And there is a sensuality to the experience of your hand moving across a page in tune with your thoughts that itself can seem increasingly valuable.” (Stephanie Dowrick, Creative Journal Writing)

I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart.” (Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones)

Ultimately, I suppose, it doesn’t matter whether you are a gadget geek or a retro pen poseur, as long as you write, if that’s what you want to do.

>6 things an organisation should be clear about (and 6 reasons why clarity works)


Sometimes you get those crisis calls: “Things are falling apart a bit here, and I don’t know what to do about it.” I had one of those from a client recently, and I spent a couple of hours kicking around the issues with the CEO. It became apparent that much of the organisation’s pain was due to the fact that several important things had never really been thrashed out, clarified, agreed on and then put down in writing.

I often see five key things being left to find a default position, consciously or not, and this was certainly the case for my client. There was also a one new one whose importance I hadn’t really grasped until then, and which was particularly salient for this client.

So here are the six elements I believe are vital for an organisation to be clear about if it wants to be effective, avoid confusion and ensure longevity.

  • Purpose – there are entire books written about the importance of knowing the organisation’s Purpose. My late and much-missed mate Grahame Maher took this as a starting point for his final challenge in the start-up of Vodafone Qatar, with his drive to build a PBO – or “purpose-built organisation”. Purpose is the element that doesn’t change through the life of the organisation, because it’s the reason for being.

    Despite its fundamental importance, the identification and expression of Purpose doesn’t always come easily. In for-profit organisations, it can sometimes be hard to move beyond “maximising shareholder wealth”. Finding Purpose is often an iterative process, before the final essence emerges. On one occasion I saw the CEO just decide and promulgate the Purpose, and that was at least a starting point for the eventual distillation of the company’s real reason for being.

    If I can’t succeed in getting my point across about Purpose with some organisations, I often revert to describing it as “the reason you want to get out of bed in the morning” or “the reason why you bother”.

  • Mission – there is a terminology issue here. Mission is also referred to in other terms such as vision, or big hairy audacious goal (“BHAG”). However described, it is a distillation of what the organisation is shooting to achieve over the next relevant period – usually 2, 3 or 5 years. Ideally Mission will spring out of the strategic planning process.

    By its nature Mission does not have the enduring, unchanging nature of Purpose. For ongoing success, Mission needs to be reset at the appropriate interval, or in the face of significant changes of circumstances. Conversely, too-frequent resetting of Mission often leads to a loss of focus and less ability to deliver.

  • Story – this was the new one for me. The biggest issue facing this client was that there had been a bit of unilateral Story re-writing going on. Story in this context is the agreed lore on where the organisation has come from, and how in a narrative sense it has got to its present position. Story can have a profound impact on Purpose, and on Culture (discussed below).

    It doesn’t matter so much what the Story is; more that there is a shared view around it. New chapters in the Story can then be written – but only with the express knowledge that it’s happening. When such turns are taken without acknowledgement, or are managed by stealth through revisionism of the old Story, organisations can hit the kind of crunch point my client had reached.

    Michael Traill at Social Ventures Australia has been a great exponent of Story-telling. He has maintained and kept an up-to-date a written narrative of the SVA Story which is shared with the board and staff, and appropriate outsiders. The keeping of the Story has not hindered substantial strategic shifts by SVA, but has rather served to highlight and validate those shifts in a coherent way.

  • Culture – let’s be clear about it: an organisation has a Culture, whether it deliberately develops one or not. The least effective Cultures are usually the ones which are created by default, through repeated behaviour patterns which are not consciously addressed. Sustainable Cultures are best created explicitly around a set of organisational values, and genuine and explicit agreements on “how we do things around here”.

    There is a cliché about “values just hanging on the wall”, and it’s true that just writing down the Culture won’t ensure that people live it. But the exposition of Culture is the positive start.

  • Structure – this isn’t just about wiring diagrams and reporting lines. Structure is a genuine attempt to be explicit about how various parts, and levels, of the organisation relate to each other. I am not preaching hierarchies here. In smaller organisations there is usually no alternative to flat Structures. Recognition of such an unavoidable result is useful to ground discussions about how career growth and development can be managed – always challenging in a flat Structure.

    Larger organisations nearly always have formal structure diagrams. The most frequently missing parts are how to work across the structure rather than just up and down the lines and boxes – the silo effect. Being clear about cross-group working is becoming recognised as essential in a knowledge economy.

  • Roles – this is simply who does what. I see frequent friction points between chairs and CEOs about who has the right or responsibility for certain facets of operations and management. When there are cases with inevitable complexities, like “co-managing directors”, or one I lived personally through with “legal director” and “general counsel”, some open discussion and clear delineation are essential.

The whole process – getting clarity embedded

The overall process which stands behind sorting out these issues is best described by Liam Forde, one of the most inspired artists of organisational design I have known. He calls it “Clarify, Communicate, Align”. First, discuss, agree and write down. Then share the output with all those who will be impacted by what has been agreed. Finally, ensure everyone understands that being part of the organisation means aligning with the agreed positions.

Clarity lower down the organisation

Being clear on these elements works equally effectively for sub-sets of the organisation. I have used purpose, mission, culture and role definition with departments, and even teams within departments. The primary requirement in this case is to ensure that anything sorted out for a sub-set aligns with the top body.

However, at least once I have used the process in reverse, in the absence of the top of the tree having gone that far and being reticent about doing it. In fact, showing that it worked at a team level served as proof of concept, to enable it to be cascaded upwards.

Why clarity works

Here are 6 reasons why I reckon that being clear on these elements of organisational design can work better:

  • The process by which they are clarified and settled allows all relevant views to be expressed, even if not eventually incorporated. You know how everyone feels about an issue.
  • The agreed positions can be easily communicated to new people joining the organisation, instead of them having to find out the hard way.
  • The agreed positions can act as reference points against which new ideas and directions can be tested.
  • They can form part of regular reviews – “how are we going against what we agreed?”
  • They can provide objective foundations for holding difficult conversations and giving constructive feedback. It’s easier and more immediately relevant to start such a conversation with: “Our agreed culture is ##, and I’d like to discuss whether we/you have been acting accordance with it”.
  • They can be communicated effectively to external stakeholders where appropriate.

Yep, it works

Once we finished our “Things are falling apart here” discussion, the CEO said to me “I’d always thought that stuff about being clear on purpose, mission and culture was wasting time, because we knew where we were going and what we were doing. But you guys keep talking about it and I’ve started to see how it can be useful. It’s not wasting time after all.”

>Calling a time-out – what to do when you don’t know what to do


I arrived at the client’s office last week, ready to start our planned workshop on stakeholder mapping. My first conversation, as I walked in, was with the CEO: “Sorry David, I’ve realised I double booked myself and it’s really important I go and see this guy [a high-flying celebrity], who’s only available this morning before he disappears for a fortnight.” Okay, we’ll kick things off without you and catch you up when you are back.

So we started, and within 10 minutes the deputy CEO’s phone rang: his mum had been in a car accident up in the country, the ambulance was on its way, and he had to leave immediately. Out of our five participants in a challenging enough process, we had lost the two senior members and were left with only three. Bit of a drama for a facilitator, that, especially one who had been flown interstate to do the job, with high expectations by the board that progress would be made with the executive team. I couldn’t think of much to do right then except to say to the remaining three, hopefully not too plaintively, “Okay, let’s take a time-out, and go over the road and get a cup of coffee.”

It was a bit of a desperation move on my part, nothing else coming into my head, but it seemed to give us a small hiatus to allow things to get back on track. After we re-convened, we had some really rich discussion, and made solid progress to report back on when the CEO returned an hour later. We eventually produced a comprehensive stakeholder map which should provoke a valuable exchange with the board.

What had worked?

  • The time-out gave people a chance to get over the vicarious upset of the car accident.
  • It let us come back to a fresh start with the now-smaller team, without it feeling so much like we were just the left-overs
  • The validity of the re-start seemed to be confirmed as a proper step to take.

So when something sticky and unpleasant hits the fan, and you don’t know quite what to do, calling a time-out might give you the pause you need to recover, re-group, and still achieve an effective result. (And who is going to object to having a cup of coffee in a hip cafe in Brunswick Street Fitzroy?)

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