How to be more successful. Stop trying so hard.

When I was a shiny faced graduate trainee learning the craft of management skills in the Distribution division (what they now call Logistics, I believe) of a large brewery, they decided that I needed to get my HGV Class 1 driving licence.  Apparently if you are going to manage someone you need to know how to do their job as well as they do.  (I believe this view has become a little outdated, in certain businesses at least, thank goodness.  This was the Dark Ages, remember?).

Mine wasn't quite as big as this.

Mine wasn’t quite as big as this.

After a 2 week intensive course involving drinking lots of tea in greasy spoon cafés and reversing around traffic cones on a disused airfield, , I was ready to drive my 35 ton vehicle to the dreaded Test Centre and undergo the 2 hour practical exam.  I’ve never been so nervous.

“Turn right at the first T junction”, the examiner said as we drove out of the test centre.  This junction has a pedestrian crossing just before you get to it, and no traffic lights, so the only way to get to turn right is to nudge your way up to the junction and wait for a break in the traffic.  This I did, only the traffic was very heavy and I had to sit there for a while, with my 40 foot trailer straddling the pedestrian crossing.

To my horror, a lady appeared at the crossing with a pram, and she had to stand on the pavement waiting to cross it whilst this idiot in a lorry blocked her right of way.  “That’s it, I’ve failed, 5 minutes into the exam.  Well done, you dipstick”, I said to myself.

Thereafter I treated the rest of the exam as a day out in the country, my and my lorry trundling around the lanes, nice guy in the passenger seat doing the navigating, what’s not to love?

When he write out my PASS certificate I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I had passed by not trying too hard.

I can think of so many other instances where this has worked for me.  I applied to win an organ scholarship to Cambridge University.  I messed up so badly it was embarassing even to the examiners, I think.  When I had another go, this time to Oxford, again I was thinking I had no chance and that I should just enjoy the break away from the school regime.  Again, stone the crows, I confounded no one more than myself by getting in.

Advising you to stop trying so hard seems to fly in the face of so much tried and tested theory:  visualise yourself succeeding, make sure your self talk is positive, set yourself ambitious goals, and so on and so on.  Yet I am sure there is something in it. One well known creativity tool is to let ideas gestate, to let them work in your subconscious.  For this to happen we have to relax and let things take their own time.  Maybe that’s partly it.

I also think that we are turning into such an anxious species, constantly checking our phones, never switching off, worried we’ll be seen as lazy if we go home too soon etc. Kids are required to survive the most punishing of regimes both in and out of school, for what?  So they don’t slip behind their peers, and probably to address the anxiety of their parents. Where does this all end, I ask myself?

lemmingsSo, controversial as it may sound, I ask you reflect on whether you are trying too hard, and whether there is a more fruitful and less stressful way to achieve success.

Are you getting the balance right, or are you being led down the same path as the rest of us lemmings?

I’d love to hear your stories of when you succeeded by not trying too hard.  Hopefully I am not totally alone on this one!



Cartoon ©Matt Wuerker


Posted in Creativity and Innovation, Life Skills | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

7 ways to not answer a question when you are Presenting.

There are people on the planet who believe that when they are presenting they are required to answer any question they may be asked.  Believing that they, and only they, must answer any question thrown at them, they then do two things, neither of which is very sensible.

nervous presenter

Firstly, they over prepare, hoping to cover off any eventuality by boning up on their topic until their head hurts.  This not only exhausts them and wastes huge amounts of time, it causes them to be nervous about forgetting what they have learnt, which makes them perform worse on the day.  A double whammy of woe.

Secondly, they attempt to “manage” the flow of questions by making the audience wait until the end of the presentation.  If they are really cunning they then make sure they eat into the time allowed for questions by “accidentally” over-running.  This control mechanism is also flawed, because it means people with genuine questions (often where they do not understand something) have to wait until the end, by which time they have tuned out because they are now hopelessly lost.  It also means the energy and interaction you gain from questions is lost, and the focus remains on you, the presenter, throughout, instead of being spread around a bit (see below).

There are in fact at least 7 things you can do with a question, none of which involve you answering it.  You’ll have seen others using these, I’m sure:  I’m not claiming a breakthrough model of question handling.  It’s just a matter of being aware of them and practising using them.  Here goes.

1.  Reflecting.  Give it back to the person who asked.  “What are your thoughts?”  This one works really well with show offs, experts, cynics and bullies.  When you let a show off show off, they love you for it and become your friend.  They also no longer feel a need to do so.  It’s a great one for experts, because they too become your friend, and can help you to answer questions where you don’t have an answer.

2.  Deferring.  “Do you mind holding onto that one, I’ll be covering it later?”  Self explanatory.  It leaves you in control and able to stick with your agenda.

3.  Deflecting.  “Does anyone have any thoughts on that?”  This one wakes the audience up, makes it interactive, shows you are crediting the audience with at least an ounce or two or brainpower, and of course is the perfect strategy when you don’t know the answer.

4.  Scoping.  “Do you mind if we take that one offline?”  Do this with the irrelevant, specialist, time consuming, unhelpful or awkward questions you’d rather not deal with in public.

5.  Answer a different question.  This is the politician’s favourite.  When it’s an unhelpful question, veer away from it onto something similar which is helpful, and then smile sweetly at your question raiser and ask “Does that answer your question?” with a downward hand gesture which means “Shut up or I’ll knee you in the groin” and walk away slowly to another part of the room.

6.  Tell them it’s the wrong question.  I’ve only ever seen this done a few times, and it works brilliantly.  It takes a bit of confidence, but gives you an air of brilliance if you can pull it off.  “Personally I think a better question might be….”

7.  Say you don’t know.  Some people don’t realise this is a perfectly acceptable answer.  No one could ever know everything about anything, so why try?  80% knowledge is probably find for most reasonable people, so when the weird left of field question comes in that you have never considered, say so and tell them you’ll look into it and come back to them.  Just try not to use this one on every question:  there is a competence issue to be addressed somewhere along the line here!

So there you have it.  See whether you can use at least two of these next time you present. And give yourself a bonus if you use number 6.

Have a missed any?  Please share if you can think of any more.

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Manager or Leader? Why most of us prefer Manager.

“A crucial difference between managers and leaders lies in the conceptions they hold, deep in their pysches, of chaos and order.

Leaders tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are thus prepared to keep answers in suspense, avoiding premature closure on important issues.

Managers seek order and control and are almost compulsively addicted to disposing of problems even before they understand their potential significance.”

Abraham Zaleznik

Abraham Zaleznik

I’m quoting Abraham Zaleznik, erstwhile Professor of Leadership at Harvard business School.  This extract is from his article “Managers and Leaders;  are they different?”, first published in 1977.

 To my eyes it could have been published yesterday, as the issues he raises are even more pertinent now than they were then.

So:  leaders are ok with chaos and managers aren’t.  An expert in-depth summary there for you -happy to oblige.

I often use Myers Briggs profiles in the Leadership programmes I run, and the question of how ok people are with lack of structure often arises when we discuss the Judging – Perceiving dimension.  The J preference is for closure, planning and orderliness, the P preference is for ambiguity, spontaneity and improvisation.

In my simplistic way I find myself thinking that Zaleznik is in effect suggesting that Managers have a Judging preference and Leaders have a Perceiving preference.

As ever, you can be an effective leader with a Judging preference, and I personally know plenty of people in that category, but it takes them more energy and feels less natural to live with ambiguity and disorder.

So as 52% of the world’s population has a Judging preference, more of us prefer to Manage than to Lead.  Probably just as well, as we can’t all be leaders.

Or can we?

I’m posing the question today as to whether you have a natural preference for J or P.  If you don’t know, might I suggest you do the Myers Briggs profile and find out?  It’s a question to which you should know the answer if you’re reading Blogs like this and trying to develop your thinking.  If you are a Leader with a Judging preference, how can you learn to become more comfortable with disorder, loose timelines, improvisation and unplanned changes?  

I want to finish with another comment from the same article, which again makes it feel as if it was written yesterday:

“Seldom do the uncertainties of potential chaos cause problems.  Instead, it is the instinctive move to impose order on potential chaos that makes trouble for organizations.”

Frau gestresst und in Panik isoliertThis resonates so well for me.  I see it so often in exercises I use with leaders on my programmes:  taking things too literally, not reading between the lines, and jumping in with both feet as soon as a problem is outlined.  Hardly any time spent exploring options, asking questions to understand the context, or agreeing how to go about things or indeed clarifying what is supposed to be achieved.

The default mindset which I see in today’s business community is:

“The sooner we start the sooner we’ll finish.”

That is a Management mindset if ever I heard one.  Execution on the plan is the top priority.  Don’t worry if the plan is flawed – as long as we’ve been seen to have done our bit, we’ll be fine.

How scary is that?

Again, what can you do to help, when everyone around you is running around in circles?  Slow it down, pause, ask a few questions, clarify.  That alone can be your leadership contribution for the day.

Please share your experience of this:  am I getting a distorted view through a training lens, or is this your reality too?

Posted in Leadership Skills, Personality types | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I bet you’re not as smart as you think you are

So you think you’re smart.  You make logical well balanced decisions, and don’t let your intuition get in the way of logic.  That’s you: business minded, professional you might say.

Yeah right.  Let’s try a little experiment.  It’s borrowed from Daniel Kahneman’s amazing book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

For this to work you will need to enlist the support of a second person.  Even then it might not – I am expanding the concept of what is possible within the Blogosphere today.  Ready:  here goes.

I’d like YOU to read this question and write down your answer.

“In a lake there is a patch of lily pads.  Every day, the patch doubles in size.  If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long does it take for the patch to cover half the lake?  24 days OR 47 days?”

lily pad

Done?  Now please ask your supporter to read the following question and write down the answer.  It is VERY important that he or she does not read the rest of this article, and that you do not give away anything about what has been in the article so far.

“In a lake there is a patch of lily pads.  Every day, the patch doubles in size.  If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long does it take for the patch to cover half the lake?  24 days OR 47 days?”

Done?  Sorry if that was a bit hard to read. It was deliberate.

According to research Kahneman refers to carried out at Princeton, 90% of people who read the first question get it wrong, as opposed to 35% who read the greyed out version.  (The answer, obviously, is 47 days.  Obviously.)

Why would this be?  It’s because the second version is harder to read, meaning you have to read it more carefully and deliberately,  This has the effect of slowing your thinking down, which makes the intuitive response of 24 days less likely to take over.

Food for thought?  This simple example captures the essence of Kahneman’s book.  The proposal is that humans make far less rational decisions than they would like to think, and that even when they are making a conscious effort to apply logic, the intuitive response (what Kahneman calls System 1) is very hard to resist.  As you read the book he packs it with examples:  “Which is a better bet, option 1 or option 2?”    You weigh it up, apply all the logic you can muster, turn the page and find out you STILL got it wrong.

If we accept that this is human nature, and there’s not an awful lot we can do about it, what are some intelligent ways to address the fundamentally bad decision making which goes on around us?

I don’t have a perfect answer, I’m sure, but here are some tactics which might work:

  • Allow more time for decisions.  Slow it down if it really matters.
  • Give people time to consider the question, and to weigh it up in their own minds before discussing it.  This is particularly appreciated by the Introverts in life.
  • Involve more people in the decision.  This at least increases the odds in your favour of logic being used somewhere along the line
  • Listen carefully to the arguments against the decision.  Summarise what you think the arguers are saying, to make sure you have understood their thinking.
  • Sleep on it.  Slower thinking sometimes kicks in overnight, as you process the decision in your subconscious.

I’ll finish today with one more example, if you like.  Same thing applies.  You answer this, then have your “helper” answer the fainter version.

“If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long does it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?  100 minutes OR 5 minutes?”


“If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long does it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?  100 minutes OR 5 minutes?”

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you the answer.  Logic will no doubt prevail, won’t it?

If it’s any comfort, I got both of these wrong when I first read it.  Less comforting, to me at any rate, was that my wife got them both right.




Posted in Creativity and Innovation, Management Skills | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Just because you train it, doesn’t mean you can do it!

I have just bought a new car.  50,000 miles sooner than I expected to, but that’s another story.

As we know, car dealerships are a wonderful place for Sleazy guy with sunglassesexercising your Negotiation muscles.  I tell people this all the time, and we practice car dealer role plays on my negotiation courses.  They know all the tricks in the book, and you never need to speak to these people again, so you can play all their games with impunity.

I need to clear the air.  Ahem.

I messed up. Blew it.  An exercise in how NOT to negotiate, in fact.

I’m fine, didn’t sell a kidney or my wife to get the car, and am looking forward to taking delivery on Friday.  But I blew it nonetheless, and am now going to tell you how so you can avoid this happening to you.

My self-critique boils down to 5 giant gaffes. Here goes:

1.  I took the dog with me.  The fact that I knew Ross was in the back of the car, possibly needing a wee, put me under time pressure and made me stressed.  When we went out to look at the 2 possible cars, he set the car alarm off several times.  This stressed me even more, and the dealer knew it.  He was very nice, but he know I didn’t have the luxury of playing the hard to get game.

Lesson:  always go unaccompanied to these negotiations, and allow yourself all day to do the deal if it is important enough to you.

2.  I went for a test drive that morning.  As I was sitting opposite the salesguy, in my mind I could still feel the warmth of that heated leather seat, and the effortless way it carved through the puddles (mini lakes) and mud in our lane, like some battleship carving its way across the Atlantic.  I wanted that experience again, and it was still fresh in my memory.

Lesson:  do the fun bit separately.  Sleep on it.  Go into the negotiation ice cool and logical, where the facts can be analysed and you can think straight.

3.  I messed up my data gathering.  Even though I started my research online 2 weeks ago, somehow I never found a way of comparing like with like.  Even when I was comparing the same model, there were variants on age, mileage, specification, trim, which to be honest I couldn’t be bothered to work out.  So when I told him that another dealer had given me £1,000 off the screen price at the first time of asking, he went straight to their website, found a comparable vehicle with the one I wanted, and proved to me that the other dealer’s prices were typically £1,000 overstated.  Somehow this point had eluded me.

Lesson: do your research properly, and when you do, make sure you anticipate the comparisons your negotiator will make.

4.  I bought it on the first Saturday of the New Year.  “He” had already sold 2 cars that morning (see point 5), and by the time he had sold to me there was a queue of people wanting to talk.  People had been sitting at home over Christmas and now fancied a day out on a wet Saturday doing something exciting.  I should have waited until mid February.

Lesson: have a strategy for when to make your purchase, and if possible do so when you are of maximum importance to your opposite number.

5.  I allowed myself to get both fed up and panicked.  I wanted it all to end, as it had started before Christmas, AND the car we wanted had been sold that morning, so I allowed my wife to encourage me to get over there to see what else they had, because clearly stocks were running out fast.  When we saw a car with the exact spec we wanted, just a different colour, I saw light at the end of the tunnel and couldn’t wait to do the deal and get it all over with.

Lesson:  recognise that if you are tired or are panicking, the chances are you will do a deal which is not the best available.

Don’t get me wrong, I did get movement out of “him”, and in fact managed a bit of creativity in getting him to fit  a tow bar worth twice as much to me as the paltry discount he was offering.  So walked away with a bit of dignity at least.

All of the above are basic errors, and I deserve to be shot.  Just because you train it, doesn’t always mean you can do it.  As I often say, negotiation is a muscle, and you have to keep working out with it.  In this case my muscle, along with much of the rest of my other muscles, appears to have gone flabby over the Christmas break.

I never did tell you about why I was having to buy a new car, did I?  It was because my BMW decided to self combust on a dark night on a busy dual carriageway:  a near death experience which I might bore you with at some point.  I am now a BMW enemy for life.

Happy New Year!  I hope 2015 brings you the outcomes you deserve.  In my case, the only way is up!


Posted in Negotiations | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

How not to delegate.

As Christmas approaches and stores fill up with scary amounts of extra stock that they hope will all magically vanish by Christmas Eve, I find myself thinking about the time when I was put in charge of stock ordering for a major business.  They delegated to me too soon, and I nearly brought the operation crashing to its knees.

This was a year or two afterwards.  Still smiling...

This was a year or two afterwards. Still smiling…

We’re going way back here, to my first job in business.  A fresh-faced Oxford graduate with a shiny MA in Music, I elected, not totally logically, to go into Distribution Operations when offered a graduate trainee job with a leading player in the UK drinks business.

3 months into my training programme (in those days such programmes lasted 18 months, would you believe) the stock controller for the wines and spirits side of the business went off long term sick.  Yours truly was seen by the Depot Manager (the top dog in other words) as a bit of a spare part who spent most of his time watching other people do stuff.  He wasn’t far wrong.

So he decided that I would be the best man for the job.  Michael Brown became, overnight, Wines and Spirits stock controller for a distribution operation serving thousands of pubs, clubs and restaurants.

I got told to spend half a day with the office manager, who told me what he knew, and then I was on my own.  How difficult can it be:  use this computer print out showing how much of each line sells per week, and reorder to ensure we hold enough stock to cover 4 weeks.

With little else to go on, I used this printout as my bible.  Intuition and experience didn’t come into it, as I had none.  I took things literally.

So when I read a memo (this was before email) saying all the wines and spirits shops on the patch should order their big selling wines for the Christmas period in October, I assumed they would.  Did the maths, and got it ordered.  Big mistake.  They waited until December, as they too didn’t want to have to clamber over it for 2 months.

Imagine this twice as high and floor to ceiling with boxes

Imagine this twice as high and floor to ceiling with boxes

During the following weeks truckload after truckload of the stuff started to arrive.  Pallets of wine were stacked literally to the roof.  There was so much of it they couldn’t get it into the secure area of the warehouse, and had to shove it in next to the beer barrels.  This meant the stock was no longer covered on insurance, there were health and safety risks, the lot.  I think we even had to take on extra security to guard the stuff!

Eventually when we had to start turning trucks back because we simply did not have any more room, an ashen-faced Depot Manager presented himself at my desk.  Much of his “feedback” would be unprintable, but I could summarise it as along the lines of:

“Mick, what the fecking hell do you think you are doing?”

You can imagine the rest.  The conversation concluded with me being offered further coaching and support, from someone who at last did know what he was talking about, ie the guy on the shop floor who had been there 15 years.

This was an instructive experience.  An object lesson in how not to delegate.  What are the basic errors here?

  1. Delegating too soon, where insufficient coaching had taken place
  2. Failing to establish the level of competence
  3. Not engaging in a dialogue to find out areas of concern, level of motivation etc
  4. Not monitoring and reviewing until it was too late
  5. Not having a regular feedback loop in place
  6. Assumptions
  7. Excessive risk taking

There are probably more.  At the root of this lay what I would characterise as laziness, conflict avoidance and excessive pragmatism on the part of the Depot Manager.  He went for a convenient and quick short term fix, without putting in any compensatory mechanisms.  In a way he hung me out to dry.

Fortunately I didn’t end up carrying the can for this incompetence, and I lived to tell the tale.  I went on to clock up loads more of these experiences, which is why I am such an expert incompetent.

What have been your bad experiences of delegation?

Posted in Leadership Skills, Management Skills | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments