Digital dieting

fire hose - MediumRecent and upcoming elections have revealed an interesting, and disturbing trend. The creation not just of “fake news”, but highly targeted fake news. Using data scraped from social media, and elsewhere, what arrives in out inbox or social media accounts is more and more tailored and targeted. A form in many ways of virtual reality.

Of course, it’s not just elections. It is happening in all realms. On the benign side, curated, filtered information is a boon when it comes from those we trust, and have given permission to do this for us. On the dark side, it gives those with the capabilities of shaping our perception of the world to suit their agenda.

We are hosed down with information, of varying quality and as our attention is increasingly consumed, we have become “solution junkies” looking for fast, easy, proven, safe answers to the challenges consuming our attention. We end up chasing our tails, reacting to assertions and views that have sometimes been designed to achieve that.

Let’s consider a few of them:

Business is more competitive than ever

This has become accepted wisdom, and the rationale for many a consultative offering. The problem is, it’s a questionable assumption. The years since the financial crisis have seen record levels of consolidation. For many businesses, it’s not competition that’s the problem, it’s the lack of it, as successful companies are gobbled up by their larger, slower, competitors.

We are all entrepreneurs now

Although we have seen a rise in the number of start ups, and independent operators, they are not all entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs who create high growth businesses are few and far between. There are more of us who operate independently out of choice and a desire to have more control of our lives, and there are those who work independently out of necessity.  These three groups have very different needs. Lots of “solutions” as to how we can increase sales dramatically, scale our business, and the like force many into costs and models that are just not appropriate.

Business is getting faster

Only partially true, certainly the internet had exponentially increased the amount of information we receive, and the number of people we are in contact with, but speed? Business is a function of relationships, and those don’t get faster. Transactions do, but transactions are soulless, and do not of themselves build businesses.

Globalisation and robots will overwhelm us.

 This is the current “fear du jour”, and like business getting faster is only partially true. Certainly, if your current job involves routine processing, whether on the assembly line, or in an accountants office, then there is a threat – both from low cost outsource labour, or an even lower cost algorithm. Again though, this affects transactions far more than relationships. 

What matters

We can easily get distracted by the volume of “noise” being directed at us, and spend so much time processing it that we lose the ability to identify the “signal”-the stuff that matters.


Dealing with the issues is a simple as it is difficult. It’s like dieting. Consume less, be selective about what you consume, and track your progress. Even better, find a group trying to do the same thing. 

If we can free up even an hour a week to be able to think and reflect, rather than react, what is important will become clearer. We have everything we need to find our way forward.

There are lots of self help books with “recipes”- all have something to offer, but like the diet, it’s really about intent.

Here.s my diet:

  • I’ve limited my social media contacts to only those I really want to be connected with. In my case, it’s around 50. Signal generators, not noise machines.
  • I use my tablet for emails, social media, calendar and any other communication.  My laptop is a place of quiet- where I do my work. There are no inbound channels to distract me. It is based on “pull”, not giving others permission to “push”
  • I do original research, and carefully select the media I use. I avoid, like the plague, articles pushed at me by those who I don’t know. They are on their agenda, not mine, and I can do without the interuption.
  • I spend at least 10 mins every day getting rid of the noise (I’m a fan of mindfulness – other approaches are available) and one afternoon a week entirely off line. 

What I’ve come to understand is that most of what we spend our time coping with uses very little,of our ability, and that most of it can be done by someone else, or something else, cheaper and probably just as well. Our futures are at heart really simple. It involves no more than 150 people who you want to work with, doing something that matters, that brings you joy.

Making time for that is worth the short term pain of a diet.



New Game, different rules

Webb-Ellis-at-Rugby,In 1823, legend has it that at Rugby School,  William Webb Ellis decided to pick up the football and run with it. The rest, as they say, is history.

If he did that today, he’d be sent off. We have rules, and people in charge of making them,

Games are easy – clearly defined rules that change only rarely. There have only ever been three changes in the rules of Lawn Tennis since it’s inception. The court is the same size, the sequence of play is clear, the scoring rules clear.

Nobody comes on to play with a golf club, or serves a rugby ball. Players can develop their skills within very tight boundaries, and can develop incremental improvements to extraordinary levels, confident that they have the time to do so.

There are very few other areas where the same applies. Even the law is subject to judgement and opinion, and the other professions have seen ingenious, often brilliant ways of circumventing rules (Tax law springs to mind.

Business is another case altogether. When AirBnB picked up Hilton’s ball and ran with it, nobody sent them off. When Elon Musk developed Tesla, nobody gave him a yellow card. We just watch, and wonder, and go back to what we were doing.

Often, we create our own rules – processes, protocols, authority levels – all designed to keep the game we think we are playing under control and convince ourselves that efficiency and control is king. Except, nobody else is listening.

If a champions league footballer wandered into an NFL game, believing his skills and training will prepare him, he’s in for an unpleasant, and probably painful shock. It’s football Jim, but not as we know it.

The point is this, the business you are working in this morning is different to the one you turned up at yesterday, and you’re a different person to the one who turned up yesterday. As Heraclitus said, “no man treads in the same river twice. Different river, different person”

Whilst this constant change has always been the case, it is now far faster, more connected, and more complex. It means the time we have to play the game we’re in is getting ever shorter, that we have to be able to recognise the changes taking place, and that we have to train for the new game whilst still playing the old one. That’s some order, and unsurprisingly, very few of us do it.

Maybe we need to think in terms of having a TMO, and independent person with an overview, to support, or question the referee we answer to. All the people playing  in the game, including the referee, are so absorbed in the here and now, they become blind to what else is going on outside the game they’re in.

Meanwhile, someone, somewhere, is picking up the ball and changing the game.


Bandwidth and Friction…….

brain bandwidthWe have long been aware that the scarcest commodity today is people’s attention, and have adopted a variety of coping strategies – from “shouting louder” marketing, to fear generation, to interruption. None of them work for anything other than a brief, unsatisfactory and often counterproductive moment. One of the many unintended consequences is that trying to start something new, whilst maintaining a current activity is extraordinarily difficult. People just don’t have the bandwidth.

This lack of bandwidth directly affects engagement. Engagement requires us to have a strong and visceral connection between what we do, who we do it with, the outcomes we generate and what we value – and that requires having the bandwidth to cope with it. If we are overly focused on one area, and lose sight of the others, engagement is likely to erode.

Another are affected is collaboration. Collaboration has long ceased to be a novelty, and is a vital component of thriving in complex, volatile and uncertain conditions. It is not a “plug in”, but required a whole new way of working.

However, many businesses I see are trying to pile collaboration on top of how they work today. It means that people who are attention saturation point are being asked to attend yet more meetings. the end result is that things freeze up.

The case for making better use of our available bandwidth is overwhelming.


I find the best way (for me) to visualise it is as a flywheel. Getting it moving in the first place requires significant effort. Once it is moving though, the biggest enemy is friction,

For us as individuals, and teams, friction is created by anything that saps energy. Unnecessary reporting, micro management, keeping per projects going beyond their sell by date, fear of being judged, lack of confidence – the list is endless.

But not unmanageable. Becoming agile requires that we work differently. It starts with the right team – skills, trust, vision, commitment and is energised by the projects that inspire. It needs an outcome focus, rather than specific goals, so that we can change tack as needed without being held hostage by no longer relevant measures, and last but not least that we give people room to operate. Probably the biggest single source of friction in most organisations is an obsession with control and measurement. Both are important, but far too often clog up the system.

Removing friction is the equivalent of releasing a brake. Whilst we can’t do much about our individual and collective bandwidth, we can make far better use of what we’ve got. We can use the energy we generate to far better effect. we can keep up with the changing environment, and move faster than our competition.

If we want to thrive on what’s ahead of us, reducing friction is the single best thing we can start to do.







Engagement – a numbers game?

5s-numbers-game-3-638We can only be engaged with so many people.

Robin Dunbar calculated it at around 150, and although there is some argument around how social media impacts that, the core concept of meaningful relationships appears to hold good. We have limited emotional and attentional bandwidth, and we work best when we husband these resources.

Alfie Kohn, another respected academic, adds another angle. In his book, “punished by rewards”, he demonstrates that by giving people who have vocations, those who work for the love of what they do, “hard” financially based goals, we destroy their motivation. (as ably demonstrated by current state approaches to education and health).

Bring the two together, and we underpin what we already sense. Engagement is maximised in relatively small groups doing something they believe in that is bigger than them.

Despite all the efforts we may make, we will not create engagement in the middle of the distribution curve.  Logic and intuition seems to support the notion that in any group, there will be a standard deviation – a small number – around 1 sigma who will be very engaged, and similar number at the other end of the curve who are actively disengaged, with the majority, in the middle of the curve, happy to turn up, but who derive their satisfaction elsewhere,

Which brings me back to Professors Dunbar and Kohn. In a group of 150, If I have 10%, or 15 people highly engaged working with another 120 who are happy to turn up, that makes a good and effective team. I can cope with the 15 who are disengaged, mainly because social norms makes it unlikely they will stay. They are visible. If on  the other hand, my organisation has 15,000 people, then 1500 people are not so visible, and they become an embedded, and energy sapping  part of the culture. Much harder to identify, and even harder to convert or isolate.

I also suspect that the larger the group, the more diluted the sense of common purpose, and the weaker the “glue” that holds the organisation together. Far more likely to become a transactional, financially measured and focused organisation that will wax and wane rapidly. Great for investors with good timing, not so much for those interested in communities.

If we want to get something useful done, we should bear this in mind. Small groups, held together by a common purpose bigger than them, where everybody knows each other. Leadership and Management become intertwined, not  separate “disciplines”. Stuff happens.

In the end, engagement is a consequence of committed groups doing something they believe in with people who support them. It is transformational.

The middle of the curve? – that’s transactional. Little we do can make it transformational. not bad, just something to recognise.

Trying to turn transactional relationships into transformational ones is probably possible in smaller groups. In  large ones. it’s largely a mugs game.

Engagement is built at the outset, It cannot be retrofitted.




Engagement – local heroes

imagesI’m currently doing the North Coast 500. for those not aware, it’s a stunning tour of the North of Scotland, and very much worth checking out.

It’s important to me – Scotland is where I spent the majority of my youth, went to University, and spent time in some of the most stunning scenery in the world. It’s wonderful to be back, and reminds me that most of what we are looking for is right in front of us if we choose to see it; but I digress.

On the way north we called into a distillery ( well, shame not to) and I ended up talking with a number of the staff. It’s a lovely place, that produces iconic whisky, and is at the hub of the (small) local community. Tight community, beautiful product that they take enormous pride in. A recipe one would think for deep engagement. Yet.

It turns out that they were bought a few years ago by a corporate. Said corporate decided that the best returns were to be made by restricting sales of its most iconic product to Asia, where the best prices could be obtained. So far, all so logical, but there seems to have been an unintended consequence. Those I spoke to were truly proud of what they do, and derived huge satisfaction from the local recognition of their skills. This conduit has been removed, and their frustration, anger even was palpable.

Reinforces the thought that has to go into engagement. Separate people from those who admire what they do, no matter the commercial logic, and trouble beckons.

Engagement – we get what we measure

measuring tapeEngagement is now so well established as a prime determinant of performance that is seems to have become a victim of its own success.

We have ways of measuring it, and orthodoxies around what causes it. We believe we understand it.

What if we don’t?

A comparison. In the learning and development world, there is a revolution taking place. Orthodoxy has it, for the last several hundred years, that the “course” is the way for people to learn. The course itself adapted to the rise of technology by going online – the same concept, improved, with added bells and whistles. However, the “course” suffers from a fatal flaw in the era of big data and machine learning. It is aimed at the average. The course is designed for scale, to apply education to large numbers of people economically, consistently and measurably (via qualifications). Problem is, qualifications measure the wrong thing – knowledge, versus what matters – application in the real world under real world conditions.

To take it to an extreme, every course meets the optimum needs of very few people – those closely clustered around the mean. Everyone else is an outlier at varying distances. They’re learning something designed for somebody else.

In the age of compliance that was fine, but now, as we enter a time when we need every shred of originality and creativity (whilst we automate the compliance tasks) it’s downright dangerous.

Perhaps engagement is the same. We fall victim of accepting a number, derived at a point in time, under false circumstances (a survey).

Engagement is as varied as learning. What engages you will not perfectly engage me. Measuring engagement around what’s easy, and reported as a variation on the average will not do.

We need data

Real time, granular, detailed, personal. There is no real reason why we can’t.  Every digital transaction, from a till entry to an order carries potential information. Why can’t we measure peaks and troughs of engagement in the same way as we measure footfall?

The answer of course is that we can – we just don’t. We accept orthodoxy, measurement of what’s easy, and become “wilfully blind

Engagement is vital, and will become more so. Digital engagement is becoming ever better, and in so doing raises the bar. As our automated interactions become better, so the transition to human interaction becomes ever more demanding. Moving from a helpful robot to a miserable human is an instant deal killer.

HR has long been the gatekeeper of engagement, but if we want to access the decision maker, it’s the people with the real time data. All we have to do is design the questions we wish to ask.

For engagement, like education, it’s the end of average, episodic, measurement. If we want to succeed, its time to go real time.


Freehold Engagement

rent or buyHave you ever noticed how small children are “freeholders”?

They engage with everything; they are insatiably curious, inventive and creative. They have no sense of failure, they just learn. They approach whatever they are doing on their own terms. They buy into whatever they do.

And then – they start school, and begin to learn failure, and to measure themselves against someone else’s criteria. When we were in the industrial era, this was understandable – we needed compliance and capability more than creativity. A good career could be carved out of learning a fixed set of skills.

We rapidly sacrifice our curiosity for well rewarded compliance. The further we go, the more “rent” we pay. We move from being freeholders in our lives to tenants. The rent we pay is what we give up to meet the requirement placed upon us by our erstwhile landlords. Those who we allow to assess us.

Up until the mid 1990’s, children’s IQ and creativity increased with each generation, but at that point diverged. IQ continues to increase, but creativity is declining. There are many arguments as to why this might be, but any primary school teacher will probably tell you it’s because they have to teach to the test. They are measured, assessed and rewarded on their classes ability to perform prescribed tasks. Compliance over creativity. Welcome to appraisals.

In the times we are facing, this is dangerous, as well as dispiriting. Machine learning and AI are really, really good at compliance, but not breadth of curiosity.

An algorithm designed to learn about traffic flow patterns doesn’t start up one morning wondering about space travel (but we do).

Algorithms have phenomenal, scary speed and depth, but no instinct for exploration.

Education is different from learning. Education is what we do to others, learning is what we do to ourselves. Education is standardised, measured based on compliance and assessed through qualification. Learning is individual, unique, and. left to its own devices, insurgent and disruptive.

Rented cars are never washed by those who rent them. Tenants expect the landlord to fix the leaky gutters. It’s easy for employees to delegate their training and development to their employer.

The problem with leases however is that they are for a fixed period, after which all rights return to the landlord. The same is becoming true of most conventional jobs and careers.


We rethink the relationship. Treat those we work with as freeholders, there by choice and rent free. Expected and trusted to their best for those they work with, because they can and because they are moved to, not because they are told to.

I was told by a mentor many years ago that if you trust people, they’ll let you down, but that if you don’t, they’ll do you down.

As machine learning and AI start to really roll, compliance based tasks will be history, but those based on curiosity, commitment and creativity – all the hallmarks of engagement – will both flourish, and be in high demand.

The last thing we will want is an organisation full of tenants.

Richard Merrick a coach / catalyst specialising in agile approaches to strategy, innovation and operations. 


Engagement and the Locus of Control.

Businessman dangling on threadsCustomer engagement and employee engagement have become industries in their own right. They have spawned consultancies, reports, surveys and methodologies.

I’d hate to spoil that, but I’m going to suggest that at the heart of engagement is a really simple construct, one we can do something about, but which may prove a challenge for many.

It’s about the “locus of control”. It’s the extent to which people believe they have power over events in their lives. A person with an internal locus of control believes that he or she can influence events and their outcomes, while someone with an external locus of control blames outside forces for everything.

Many of the things we do as organizations to achieve efficiency encourages those to whom they are applied an external locus of control. Levels of authority, permissions, fixed processes. In a previous blog I mentioned the five neural domains of engagement (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) and when you think about it, many systems designed to improve consistency and control put significant dents in these.

An internal locus of control on the other hand can enable extraordinary performance, and is at the heart of high performance organizations – the Toyota Production System, W.L. Gore, Special Forces teams. All of these effectively reverse the control process and puts authority in the hands of whoever is closest to the action. It features in those domains where uncertainty is at maximum – war at one end (no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy) and evolution (natural selection favours the most adaptable)

Relying on “programmes” to improve engagement is a bit like trying to learn to ride a bike by reading a book. Engagement if a contact sport, and visceral.

We are in a period of chronic uncertainty. If your systems rely on direction, compliance and control, rather than trust and delegated authority, not only will your engagement suffer, you’re probably in for a very rough ride.

The answer (almost certainly not the only one, but the best one I’ve encountered) is to adopt agile approaches – to strategy, development and operations. Focus on getting the right people, be clear about where you want to get to (far more than telling them how to get there) and support them to do what they need to do.

It can be a challenge for many of us brought up in a different era, but one we have to learn if we don’t want to fall prey to natural selection.

Engagement – the power of the other

shadowWe have become accustomed to thinking about “engagement” in terms of numbers and formulas. We are told that only 20% or so of employees are “positively engaged” and that around the same number are “actively disengaged”. (I guess the remainder just turn up). These statistics are useful, but I find them “cold”. I can graph them, but not feel them. Engagement is a visceral subject – it’s all about how we feel.

In his book, “The power of the other” Henry Cloud takes a long and deep look at the effect other people have on us – on our health, the way we think, and the way we perform. I can’t think of a much better definition of engagement.

He identifies four types of relationship, and the impact they have. I think we can look at them at both a human, and a technology level. He talks of four “Corners”

Corner 1 is where we don’t really engage at all. We keep others at arm’s length for a variety of reasons, from fear, or uncertainty, or sometimes just because we can’t be bothered. It’s isolating, and we don’t learn much. It enables us to exist in our own little bubble, and see the world the way it suits us. At a human level, we’ve all experienced this type of customer service, or relationship at work. At a technology level, it’s the “ All our operators are very busy at the moment. Your call is very important to us, please stay on the line etc….”. You will have your own favourite examples. Let’s not even talk about trying to call your bank.

Corner 2 is where there is a relationship, but very one sided, and often one based on domination. We have all experienced what that is like at work at some point, and it seems to me it’s also far too prevalent in many customer relationships. From the tone of the TV license renewal advertisements which are not very thinly veiled threats, to communications from utility companies, these convey the clear impression that as customers, we are fairly powerless, and we can take it or leave it. They are clearly not engaged with us – what on earth would cause us to be engaged with them?

Corner 3 is where the relationship is positive but false. Full of bonhomie, and “have a nice day”, it seeks engagement, but is not backed by genuine intent. Some of the efforts are good, and fool us for a while, but always surface. There is an excellent HBR article by Jacob Morgan “Why the Millions We Spend on Employee Engagement Buy Us So Little” that highlight many of these “corner 3” activities. They include, at a human level, those “episodic”, “topic of the month” initiatives, and insincere relationships with busy managers and colleagues. We can often see the same in consumer relationships. At a technology level, badly designed or complex to navigate web pages, and customer service programs can give the impression that “the lights are on, but nobody’s home”

Corner 4, You’ll recognise this is where the action is, the most difficult to do, and where the huge returns are. Honest, open, interested relationships, where the genuine intent is for the joy of all stakeholders. It’s the world of Zappo’s, where staff have unlimited time to make sure the customer is happy, or the Ritz Carlton, where any member of staff has the authority, on their own initiative to spend up to $2000 to solve a customer problem. The same trends can be seen in any of the “best companies to work for” surveys.

It’s all about culture, purpose and intent, and it can’t be faked. At a technology level, the same is evident – technology that changes and adapts, and learns what customers want. It feels like technology that listens. The potential for Machine Learning and Artificial intelligence, used with intent, is huge here.

Engagement is a corner 4 game, and transformational. Anything else is transactional. The equivalent of the around 60% of employees who just turn up.

The good news is that great engagement can be designed. It’s not a process or a formula, it’s a human activity. It’s personal, unique, and uncopiable. At it’s best, to borrow from an old Ford advertisement, it’s humans and technology in perfect harmony. Technology in the service of people.

People, ideas, technology – in that order.

Image:Gabriel Isak Photography – The Shadow and the Self

Richard Merrick a coach / catalyst specialising in agile approaches to strategy, innovation and operations. 



The Engagement Revolution

revolutionIt’s said that the problem with revolutions is that we don’t know that we’re in one until it’s almost over. Well. I think we’re in one. It can be difficult to detect the signal amidst the noise of the current Brexit climate, but look for it, and it’s there.

The evidence is both factual and anecdotal. In a report published in March, PwC forecasts that 25% of jobs in the accommodation and food service sector will be automated by the early 2030’s, whilst at the same time research from the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) and CV-Library indicates that automation and AI are, so far, not putting UK jobs at risk.

We can be confident when both sides of the concern are being argued, that something is happening, even if we’re not entirely sure what.

Anecdotally, my clients who have employees and partners who feel impacted by the implications of Brexit – from food service employees to veterinary neurosurgeons (a very rare and valuable skill) are seeing them pre-emptively create their own certainty by leaving the UK.

Which brings me to engagement. Every report I see indicates chronically low levels of employee engagement and average customer engagement is little better. The causes are many and varied, but all seem to centre around a lack of connection.

Neuroscience  indicates that are five domains that critically affect our sense of engagement – our perceived levels of our status, and our senses of certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. In the current climate, all of those are likely to be bubbling away merrily for most of us, regardless which side of the Brexit fence we are on.

The implications are significant and far reaching. We know that engagement in the hospitality sector is a critical issue, both for staff and customers, and that engagement is the pivot around which service, reputation and brand image turn.

This is where technology becomes vital – it is a critical source of both data, and support. We know that in the end it’s not the technology alone that makes the difference, it’s how it informs and enables the people in the business.

Engagement is a contact sport.

Technology will inevitably replace many jobs, many of them routine and of low added value, but offers a huge opportunity for us to harness it and use it in harmony with those who really drive engagement – real, live humans.

I experienced a great example this morning. It’s Spring, so we’re been sorting the garden, and ordered some new garden furniture from Amazon.  Amazon’s robots sprang into action, with instant acknowledgement, and a few moments later, another mail with a scheduled delivery date and tracking. Great – but the best bit was a call this morning from the vendor:

Hi. I’m Sue. You’ll know we’re delivering your furniture today, and I thought I’d call just to make sure you were going to be in. Your driver’s name is Jim, and he’ll call you 30 mins before he is due to arrive. If you have any problems with assembly, or any other questions, my number is xxx, please don’t hesitate to call me. I really hope you like it”

Wow! I am very engaged with this company. Amazon turns from supplier to intermediary.

I think this captures the opportunity we have well. To use technology to set the stage, on which we, as suppliers and brands can perform.

It’s not a process, or a formula, but something altogether more visceral, more human. Technology providing augmented customer and staff relationships.

There is a saying in Agile that if it works, it’s obsolete. Engagement is like that – it’s dynamic, alive and evolving.  It’s a means, not and end. It’s certainly not a number.

The changes we are in the middle of are accelerating, and it will be too late to take how we work with technology to increase engagement via technology seriously when the revolution is over.

I think we should decide whether to be on the stage, or watching from the stalls as the actors take a bow.


Richard Merrick a coach / catalyst specialising in agile approaches to strategy, innovation and operations.