Training Learning…

I travelled by train last week. Up and down the country. I was in London for a UK National Health Service meeting and train was somewhere between my only and best option. There is much to admire in the NHS. And there is much to change and improve. Time will tell the benefit of our meeting last week, but the mere fact that NHS leadership are engaging with UK industry feels positive.

The people I spoke with were passionate and committed; interested and engaged. Some were NHS employees but most – like me – were representatives from related and associated industries. I left London pondering the challenge of changing and improving an organisation that employs over 1.7 million people (only surpassed by Wal-Mart apparently).

Every challenge and every opportunity is magnified in an organisation of 1.7M…let alone an organisation with 63 million clients and a budget in excess of £100 billion. How would you define the culture…let alone change it? How would you define the purpose…let alone measure performance? How would you assess customer satisfaction…let alone improve? If I were involved, what would I do? What would I focus on?

Travelling by train to and from the NHS was a fraught experience. I didn’t have as much control as I do when I drive, and I had to make more decisions for myself than I do when I fly. I travelled north from London late at night (hopelessly delayed). I travelled south from London in the middle of rush hour (exactly on time). I could see WiFi on my computer all the time; I was able to connect to WiFi about half the time; I could send and receive email for even less time. My cell phone couldn’t find any cells. I read. I slept. I thought.

I had booked ahead (dramatically cheaper seats) in a quiet coach (an apparent contradiction in terms). I planned my connection transfers from station to station…which inevitably were either too long and tedious, or too short and frantic.

When I drive I am mostly by myself in the car. With the radio. With my cell phone. When I fly I am by myself on a plane. With the cabin crew. With my email and movies. On the train I was with lots of people I didn’t know. In their space. Seemingly involved in their discussions.

The most enjoyable aspect of my train travel was the selection of coffee shops at every station. My worst was this forced interaction. I seemed to spend my time apologising (I have long legs), or declining (I am not interested). Quiet carriages ban cell phones – although no-one seems to have told people continually calling my fellow travellers – but yet passengers are seemingly free to enter into long and loud conversations with each other.

Catering on my trains was mixed. Sometimes surprisingly good; frequently not; always quite expensive; occasionally non-existent. But I do remember Leo. Leo pushed the catering cart on my train north (the late one). He made that journey bearable. He was amusing and he was engaging. He explained more about or delay than the train driver, and seemed to ask (and care) how everyone’s travel had been impacted.

He joked about the train coffee (he was right) and recommended the red wine (right again). He diffused the angry passenger; and informed the concerned traveller about alternative connections. He did it all with a smile.

He made a difference to me. He made an impact on me. I was impressed and grateful. Just before we arrived I made sure I found him, told him and thanked him.

The answer to my question then? It’s always the people.



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Complex Curiosity…

I spoke with lots of people last week. Nothing unusual in that I guess, but the vast majority were one-to-one discussions. It was just the way my calendar fell. No big meetings or big telephone calls or big anythings. Only a balance between remote and in person meetings. Local and international calls. Work and personal. Engaging and exciting. Disconcerting and bewildering.

It’s obvious really, but as a general rule I find it easier to interact with someone I know, or with someone I have similar experiences to. And these days it is so much easier to find out so much more about so many. The internet is replete with information about our careers, our companies and our challenges. I always try to look at company web sites, social media, and – if it is an internal call – through our internal data sources (organisation charts, internal web sites) before I connect with someone I don’t know. That having been said, it’s amazing how often ‘engaging and exciting’ comes from those I haven’t met, or those I hardly know anything about.

I also give myself a moment at the end of any meeting to consider how it went, how I felt? What did I learn and what I would do differently next time. What other questions would I ask? Sometimes this process is external – I seek feedback – and other times it is internal – I contemplate. But I always consider. It helps me close one discussion and open the next.

And yet every so often I have a discussion where something really hits me. Something really resonates. I know when this happens because I realise that I talk about the same topic through the majority of my calls. I will ask everyone I interact with about the same topic. No matter how hard I try not to. I sometimes wonder how much this helps (OK – confuses) people talk with. But I know it helps me. A lot. I talk out loud about this topic of interest. I ask and hear and see other responses. My thinking and understanding increases.

I spoke to an old colleague one morning. Someone who was a great personal help to me two years ago. We hadn’t spoken in ages. Time flies. It was great value. And great fun. We discussed a range of topics – by phone – I knew at the time it was energising for me. I couldn’t sit still. I had to get up and walk around the room. I am still thinking about what my friend said. It was complex and complicated. Literally.

If a situation is complicated; we need to seek clarity. If situation is complex, we need to remain curious

I went straight to google but couldn’t find the quote anywhere. I looked up complicated and complex. I certainly use the words interchangeably. But the message implies a difference

This helped. A complex problem tends to have many components; but complex has no implication of difficulty. Complicated – on the other hand – always implies a high level of difficulty. My interchange of these two adjectives is evidently wrong. But it was the behaviours that help in each situation that had the biggest impact on me.

Complicated drives a need for clarity. For an explanation. I can relate to this. But complex is different. And the insight that in complex situations we should remain curious was enlightening.

Curiosity is a desire to learn about a subject or about a situation. Curiosity is all about questions, ideas, options and possibilities. And remaining curious is as much about belief. Belief in people, in each other and in ourselves. Belief that solutions will always appear.



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Implement Power…

I was in the UK all last week. I met Inspectors, Sales Force, Scientists, Partners, Colleagues, Lobbyists, and Friends. By telephone, in person and via video conference. I worked, socialised, worked out, drank coffee and walked.

I listened. Asked questions. Thought. Suggested. Laughed. And thanked. I told stories…and I used quotes. I even combined stories with quotes.

My first most influential boss once told me that stories are a powerful way of communicating. In truth, we sat in his office and he told me about how his first most powerful boss once sat him down over a cup of coffee, and told him about the moment he had first realised the power of stories as a way of communicating. I still tell that story…

Stories work because we relate to them, and are interested in them; we remember them and above all respond to them. They move us to engage and move us to action. Stories become the basis of conversations, discussion and anecdotes. They allow us to connect with each other. We learn. And in turn we communicate and share. Laugh and amaze. Listen and influence.

I tell stories all the time. About people I know, I meet, I like and I love. Most of my stories are personal – they nearly always involve me as a character or as an observer…but I always attribute the insight of the story to the original storyteller…

I also remember and recount good quotes. A good quote has relevance and resonance. Short, provocative and memorable. And I like to name names – the person who first said the words, or if not…whoever first gave me the quote.

My second most influential boss sat with me during a coffee break at one of my first large, scary, global off-site meetings (in Cambridge) and said…the power position is to influence strategy and to own implementation. ‘Absolutely right’ I agreed. ‘No’ she replied. ‘Give yourself time to think about it and what it means.’ That was some seventeen years ago. I am still thinking.

Power position is to influence strategy and to own implementation’. Well it has to be right. There’s no way ‘owning strategy’ could be the position of power. Is there? After all, most strategy is nothing more than a handful of PowerPoint slides.

And yet it is amazing the extent to which our actions suggest that owning strategy is key. No matter how brilliant our slide sets or documents on strategy may be, strategy can only have impact, can only deliver value, can only be full or power…when we implement…and moreover when we implement successfully.

But there is more to this quote. To own implementation without any influence on strategy is important but, in itself, is also not enough. It misses out on value – and yes – power…power to influence and to improve.

It is only when we implement that we experience – and create – the reality. Implementation occasionally takes place exactly as planned. (Very occasionally). No matter how much planning and foresight we may believe we have, it is only when we implement that events occur. Unintended or unexpected. Better than predicted or worse. Delightful…or delaying.

It is only by implementation that we learn. We learn what to do more of, or to do differently. What to stop even. The cycle of influence of strategy (what we are trying to do) by those owning implementation (doing it) is as essential to ultimate success as it is exciting and satisfying.

And my last learning about this quote is that it is nothing to do with power of control. It is everything to do with power of capability…power of opportunity.



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Pointed Decisions…

I had to make some pretty big decisions last week. Some were about people (how do we best make some things happen). Some about projects (which do we continue or slow down). And some were just about me (where and when to invest my time). We all do this every week. Every day in fact. We all have decisions we have to make. Some are big, some small. Some are only about us. Others involve others.

Some of our decisions are easy and some are more complicated. Last week I would say that mine were average overall. Some straightforward and some easy. Some of small significance…some with major implications.

At the end of the week I was visiting a partner of ours in Europe. We were discussing portfolio progress and performance. We heard how this partner has dramatically improved their performance (measured by project success) over the last few years – an improvement I was delighted to see we had contributed to in our own way.

‘Dramatic improvement’ always makes me sit up and take notice. No matter what the subject may be. I am always interested and want to understand what action or actions lead to a ‘dramatic improvement’. And so, of course, I duly asked our hosts the question – what has been the key to this improvement?

And the first words in reply? Better decision making! Wow!

I was as impressed as I was surprised. The normal answers to this sort of question are based on a new technology, or a new assay and sometimes better processes…but seldom is the given answer ‘decision making’.

There is an often quoted statistic about the moment any project reaches a key decision point. If the decision to advance or stop is made by the project team, they will decide to advance in 65% of cases. Conversely if the same decision is made by an independent team exposed to the same data, they will decide to stop in 65% of cases.

This resonates with me. There is always so much motivation to advance projects…we tend to reward and recognise project progression; we celebrate project champions; goals feature successful progression of projects. And conversely there is seldom recourse for incorrect progression.

I am always most interested in our more complicated and significant decision points. Moments where no matter how much data and information we may have, it is never complete and is always conflicting. Moments where we know it will be years before we find out if our choice was right or wrong. Such decision making is seldom simple.

As I flew back to the UK, I wondered more about the quality of big decision making itself? Who is responsible for a decision? Who else is involved? What data are available? Or not available? Who is accountable? How independent are they? How passionate? How rational? What process is used? What record is kept?

Just as we came into land, the idea of “Truth-Seeking” came to mind. Truth-Seeking – where the remit of teams would be to simply uncover the truth; truth that in turn would hopefully enable the right decision – with minimal cost and time – at any decision point.

We could measure and reward our teams on their ability to uncover the truth – truth that enables decision making. And recognition would to be for quality decision making based on truth…rather than based on outcome.

On my drive home, my mind drifted back to my own decisions this week. How much ‘truth’ did I have when I made those decisions? How much was I focussed on desired outcome?

How would I assess my own performance…how will I improve…?



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Touch Pointing…

I had dinner last week at what is arguably my favourite restaurant in town. I have been in the UK all week. My calendar was manic and dinner was a great way of eating, of socialising with a colleague, of putting the world to rights, and of agreeing some ideas about how we can best advance an exciting project we are working on together.

And it worked. Granted we achieved some of those goals better than others…I don’t think the world will move in any particularly different trajectory because of our meal…but we definitely did very well on the others.

So my favourite restaurant then? I can’t actually remember why I first went…but almost certainly it would have been on the recommendation of a friend or colleague. Maybe a real friend or colleague…or maybe it was an internet review…

If I was asked what I had to eat last Wednesday I could just about remember (lamb Molago). If you asked me to tell you what I ate the time before that I would struggle…other than that it was definitely a curry. But I do remember what a great evening we had; who else was there; why we were there; and how much we all enjoyed ourselves. And how great the experience was.

I haven’t flown with Virgin Atlantic for well over ten years…and yet somehow I still have that recollection that when I did I always had a great experience. Even now I would likely jump at the chance if one came up…its quiet surprising as I think about it. It has to be that ‘great experience’ thing.

I once found myself sitting in a seminar in New York (no I don’t remember why or how) given by an Innovation Leader from Virgin (the ‘parent company rather than Atlantic). The first thing I remember was how open she was. She compared and contrasted the Virgin stunning successes…airlines, mobile phones & broadband, holidays…to the (really quite hard to remember) failures…Cola, Cosmetics? Flowers (yes really).

So what did they learn? Well everything successful revolves around the customer experience. And the customer experience is based on the ‘touch points’ – the moments that directly impact the customer; moments that affect how they feel. ‘Moments of truth’.

This resonated at the time…and still does. The successful Virgin businesses have multiple ‘moments’ where the customer interacts with the business. The unsuccessful Virgin businesses don’t.

And it is just as interesting to consider that although many of these moments are person to person (cabin crew on planes; help lines for telephones), many are virtual (web sites for banking, advertisements for holidays). But they are all designed and implemented in a manner that impacts the customer specifically to deliver the experience. Everyone at Virgin involved in and around these moments of truth are trained and are aware…and are recognised and rewarded.

And it is the experience that we remember as customers. We recount our experiences. We refer based on these experiences. It was my experience with Virgin Atlantic that I remember and that makes me wonder about when next.

So back to my favourite restaurant. The one I remember, recount and refer. It is my experience that counts. The multiple touch points from booking, arriving, ordering through to serving and even paying. Multiple touch points that happen every time I visit. Of course the quality is important (wonderful). And the price (impressive). But they are (literally) table stakes.

Restaurants are a competitive business. Success comes from differentiation…but differentiation based on the experience of the customer.

I hadn’t thought about Virgin’s ‘moments of truth’ for a while…years in fact. Another benefit from my dinner last week.



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Printing Helping…

I have a new-found admiration for IT helpdesks. No – that’s not really true. My admiration for IT helpdesks has increased from ‘healthy respect’ to ‘in awe’. As for individuals who work in these services, I don’t know how they do it.

We had a great and very successful couple of days last weekend helping my daughter settle into her new apartment. We did most everything on our ‘to do’ list when we were there…and there were one or two things left. One of which involved me sending her a printer cable. The other didn’t.

It sounded so simple. I send printer cable; we connect computer to printer; download software; install printer; and WiFi printing becomes possible. Four simple steps…one attractive outcome. Seven days later we have successfully completed the four steps…but still no WiFi printing.

I think we have carried out our four steps. I know that printing is not happening. So either we haven’t carried out the four steps…or there are more steps. Our first thought for ‘step five’ was for me to attempt (with much emphasis on attempt) an imitation of being a ‘help desk operative’. I failed. Big time. Some ninety minutes of (face) time to be precise. I even resorted to the tried and tested strategy of suggesting we ‘turn it off and turn it on again’.

I am sure it will be sorted today. We only need five more minutes. Honest.

In hindsight the flaws in my attempts to help are quite obvious. Number one – I don’t really have any idea what I am doing. A pretty big flaw. Number two – my daughter knows more than enough about computers to realise that I don’t know what I am doing. An interesting conundrum.

Unfortunately positive intent and real-time Google searches were not really enough. In addition to no experience and no qualifications…I had no script and no remote access – I thought this last two were pretty good excuses in truth. The only good news was that my ‘positive intent’ seemed to be enough to encourage my daughter to stay connected for ninety minutes. Or maybe she was just enjoying our time together…

As I think about this some more, my conclusion is that I am likely an awful recipient of IT helpdesk support. I probably have just about enough experience (but no knowledge) to be dangerous (but no help and much harm). And my willingness to search Google – and to believe everything I read – is somewhere between a great asset and a maddening weakness. And I dislike with a vengeance being asked to turn my computer off and on.

My reassurance is that that anything I report to a helpdesk will be a problem that they’ve seen before…many times. They are trained and they are professional. They are courteous and they are accommodating. They want to help and they want to help quickly.

They also know that whenever I (or anyone else) make contact with them, we will be agitated and anxious. Agitated that our normally trustworthy systems are not working. Anxious about our deadline, our work, our pictures, or our music…or just anxious about our time.

When I think back about those calls for help, I realise that helpdesks tend to be every bit as relaxed and poised, as I am tense and worried. They explicitly acknowledge, accept and apologise for my frustration. They seek to exude confidence, reassurance and understanding. At no stage do they betray any uncertainty. They show me that they care.

We will connect our printer today – my daughter and I together. And I have just worked out what I need to do…differently.



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Progress Excitement…

The thing about progress is that it is very hard to see progress in any one moment. Today we are where are…and we experience what we see, feel and hear. We seldom sit in a particular moment and compare back to similar moments in our past. But it is only when we make such comparisons that we are able to appreciate just how far we have come and how amazing the journey has been.

Moreover, as we begin to recognise a series of comparable moments over time…we begin to contemplate where they indicate we could get to, what we may achieve, and how we may feel.

But to make such assessments of progress we need something against which we can compare today’s experience. Well that’s OK. We are scientists after all – we always collect and keep data…don’t we? And we are people after all – we take and keep photographs…don’t we?

But then there are events in our lives that are of such significance; moments of such magnitude that we remember them in minute and precise detail today as if they happened today…rather than a year ago. Or two years ago.

Two years ago today we left my daughter at University for the first time – her first year. We were all there. We all drove there together. We drove home apart. Even now I can feel the emotion…I feel emotional even thinking about that day. That Sunday. A day I won’t forget.

One year ago today we left my daughter at University for the second time. I drove there. Everyone else flew. I can remember everything we did; I can feel the emotion. But as I compare…I recognise how different it felt. More excitement. Less worry (well a little less anyway). So much pride. So much love. How difficult it was again to close the car door and drive off with her waving.

And today we left my daughter at University for the third time. She flew there by herself last week. I drove yesterday and my wife flew yesterday. My son stayed home. We all (including my son) had a wonderful weekend. We laughed and told stories. We built wardrobes. We arranged rooms. We went shopping. We ate pasta. We drank prosecco.

My wife flew home this morning. Smiles, hugs, kisses and tears. I set off to drive back after lunch. That was still the hardest part. My daughter waved. I wiped my eyes. I had to leave. Tears of pride and joy, wonder and amazement. Tears of love.

I found myself thinking about progress as I hit the main road out of town…I forced myself to think about progress as I hit the main road out of town. And as I did, I recognised that we have all come a very long way in only two years. Today was an emotional day for everyone. The emotions are strong but the emotions are different. There is less anxiety. There is more excitement.

Excitement that comes from recognising progress. Excitement comes from the anticipation of what is to come. Of what is possible. Of how it will feel. Excitement for all of us…but especially – this weekend – for my daughter.

And as I drove, and as I thought, my mind wandered and wondered about progress in other areas. Areas where I know I don’t have such a solid memory of events to compare against. But areas where an assessment of progress would be good to do. At work. At home. Personally.

I stopped thinking and started talking. I called my wife. My son. My daughter. My sisters. My brother. My dad.

I felt better.



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